Jayne Dowle: Boris’s bluster on NHS won’t help as the cuts hit child health

Boris Johnson en rotue to this week's Cabinet meeting where he called for more funding for the NHS.
Boris Johnson en rotue to this week's Cabinet meeting where he called for more funding for the NHS.
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IF Boris Johnson really wants to help the NHS, he could do worse than turn his attention to the latest report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

The respected medical body has published its State of Child Health: One Year On scorecard this week. It covers England, Scotland and Wales and measures progress from last year’s report.

The findings are not good for England. In comparison to the Welsh and Scottish governments, Westminster is sadly lacking when it comes to passing legislation to improve child health.

There has been some progress, notably in the implementation of a Digital Child Health Strategy, the publication of a Tobacco Control Plan, the initiation of some specialist service reviews in paediatrics and the introduction of the sugar tax. Overall, however, the Government is failing to help those who arguably need it most – our children.

The RCPCH concludes that we are still waiting for an over-arching child health strategy and increased investment in child health research. There is also the matter of a junk food advertising ban – still to be implemented – and no official way of measuring rates of breastfeeding.

However, by far and away the biggest issue impacting on child health is the swingeing cuts to public health funding, which are disproportionately affecting children’s services. The scorecard marks this “black”, pointing out that public health spending is more than five per cent lower in 2017-18 compared with 2013-14.

Suddenly Mr Johnson’s airy pledge of an extra £5bn a year for the NHS post-Brexit seems nothing more than a figure plucked from the air. It brings to mind another spurious health service figure, the one peddled by Vote Leave which implied that the reported £350m a week we send to Brussels would be redirected to the health service.

Even the man who came up with this claim, Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave campaigns director, has now renounced it as an error. How many people voted accordingly? And doesn’t the NHS deserve a little more respect?

Meanwhile, as Mr Johnson sits at the Cabinet table in Downing Street plotting Theresa May’s downfall, sick people are waiting for hours on trolleys in A&E departments all over England. And, as the RCPCH report proves, the health of our children is being compromised.

That said, Mr Johnson does have a point. The state of the NHS is doing irreparable damage to the reputation of this Conservative government. In poll after poll, voters put decent healthcare at the top of their wish-list.

It’s clear that more funding is required. The problem is that the situation is so dire, whenever any extra money is forthcoming it is swallowed up immediately. Those in charge of NHS finances can’t plan ahead effectively or account for contingencies.

Nevertheless, Mr Johnson’s interventions seem particularly cynical as A&E departments cave in under unprecedented demand this winter.

However, if he’s committed to improving the NHS, he needs to look beyond these beleaguered hospitals and consider healthcare in its widest sense. That’s where this report from the RCPCH should come in handy. Hospital targets are a useful measure of performance, but what most people want is accessible health care in their local community.

Do you think he has ever thought about what it might be like for a young family struggling to look after their sick children? Perhaps this family lives in an isolated area ill-served by public transport. Even when they can secure an appointment, they might face a walk of several miles or a long journey by public transport just to see a doctor.

Then there’s the hunt for a pharmacy to dispense any prescriptions – in 2016, Mr Johnson’s government announced that it was slashing the pharmacy budget by £170m, leading to the potential closure of thousands of local dispensaries. The policy is under judicial review, but the Labour Party has vowed in its manifesto to reverse any such funding cuts.

Meanwhile, health visitors are run off their feet. The support once offered to families by the Sure Start centres spearheaded by Tony Blair’s Labour government, is but a distant memory in many towns and villages. Preventable diseases such as rickets and measles are rife.

Services are simply not delivering the care that children need. This is bad enough. Even worse is the fact that this will have a detrimental effect on the health of the nation. As Professor Neena Modi, president of the RCPCH says: “The science exists for all to see; invest in the health of children and make a huge difference to their health in later life and hence to their economic productivity.”

That’s why the NHS requires rigorous and sustained intervention, not the fleeting attention of a grand-standing Foreign Secretary with his sights on the top job.

There’s no point promising to throw money at our health service without a proper, sustained plan for how any future funding should be targeted. The health and wellbeing of our children is far too precious to be held hostage to Boris Johnson’s political ambitions.