Boris Johnson will put repairing the NHS at the heart of his next programme for government, as his team draws up plans to lock in the huge local election gains in the north of England and Midlands.
With more NHS funding inevitable after the damage and delays caused by Covid-19, Downing St wants to neutralise an issue that could undermine progress among voters who have switched to the Tories. The NHS England head, Sir Simon Stevens, has already said cancer care and extra funding needs to be a priority. NHS waiting lists are seen as one of the government’s major vulnerabilities.
“We have to be honest with the public about the damage done to the NHS by coronavirus and the scale of the challenge ahead,” a No 10 source said. “Now, more than ever, the NHS is the government’s priority – and recovery of patient services is at the heart of that. We need to achieve a national recovery that spreads opportunity and transforms the whole UK, and this Queen’s speech will have that ambition at its core.”
There were 4.7 million people in England waiting for routine operations and procedures in February, the highest figure since 2007. Demand will grow as routine check-ups return this year. The government is providing £325m for diagnostics and £1bn to kickstart elective services.
Meanwhile, a debate is emerging among Tory MPs over whether Johnson should back an early general election, after sweeping gains in the local elections suggested it could make further inroads into traditionally Labour seats. The next election is due in 2024, but some argue that bringing it forward a year could allow the party to make gains before many of the big tax increases and spending cuts kick in to repair the economic damage of the pandemic.
Some Tory MPs said the next election could not come fast enough. “Why wait until 2023? Why not 2021? Bring it on,” joked one MP. Another former minister said that, while it was too early to be backing an early election, “four-year terms were always the norm for strong governments under Thatcher and Blair”.
One complication of an early election spotted by party figures is that boundary changes, which could additionally benefit the Tories, may not be ready until the end of 2023.
Others are urging the party to hammer home its advantage before the debate over an early poll is allowed to take off publicly. “This is in part a vaccine afterglow,” said one former cabinet minister. “Let’s see how people feel when they are properly back at work. We have to make the most of our Brexit freedoms now, which will be down to cabinet competence.”