What did the Conservatives and Labour say about health at their party conferences?

  • 17 Oct 2022
  • David Murray, Policy Advisor

Over the last two weeks, both the Conservatives and Labour held their party conferences, at which they debated, discussed, and announced a range of policy measures that will affect ophthalmology services. RCOphth Policy Advisor David Murray rounds up the key announcements and what they mean for ophthalmology.

While there were relatively few health-related events at the Conservative conference, Health and Social Care Secretary Therese Coffey re-emphasised the Government’s primary focus remains tackling backlogs, while the new health minister Robert Jenrick appeared to reaffirm commitments to a much-needed long-term workforce plan. Meanwhile, the Labour conference focused more heavily on the need to expand the workforce, with new announcements on increasing medical school places. Labour’s Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Wes Streeting indicated that this commitment would need to come hand-in-hand with the reform of services though.

What is a political party conference?

Each political party holds its conference in September or October, with these conferences running for a number of days and consisting of key policymakers, party officials, and business and third-sector leaders coming together to discuss debate, and propose policies across a range of sectors including in health. Each conference is punctuated by speeches from senior politicians – such as the Health and Social Care Secretary – in which they announce new or reaffirm existing policy commitments.

Conservatives repeat focus on tackling backlogs

As expected, the Conservatives focused attention on their previously announced commitments from September 2022 in ‘Our plan for patients. In this plan, priority was given to tackling the backlog through increased reliance on community diagnostic centres (CDCs), independent sector providers (ISPs), and virtual outpatient appointments. Alongside measures to tackle the backlog, the plan focused on digitising the NHS and re-committed the Government to deliver a long-term workforce plan.

If you would like more detail on these policy announcements, the Policy team has written a summary of ‘Our plan for patients’, outlining key points and the College’s response to them.

While there were few health-specific events at the conference, newly appointed health minister Robert Jenrick made a number of short interventions across a range of relevant areas. During one event, he appeared to reaffirm commitments to a much-needed long-term workforce plan, specifically stating that a long-term view was needed on the recruitment and retention of health staff. Mr Jenrick also suggested that the current reliance on staffing the NHS through overseas recruitment needed to be reduced. The new minister also spoke about capital spending, stressing that a reduction in the NHS capital budget would be a short-termist approach. He also confirmed that the rollout of new surgical hubs and CDCs were to continue this year, with the next wave being announced very soon. While discussing capital budgets, Mr Jenrick also expressed concern that some trusts did not yet have electronic patient records.

Labour commits to workforce expansion coupled with reform

The Labour Party focused on two key themes during this conference season: expanding the workforce and ensuring investment packages are coupled with reform. As expected, health remained high on the agenda at the Labour conference, with some welcome top-line commitments coming from the Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Health Secretary. Over the coming months, we can expect more detail to be provided on these commitments, and the College will continue to engage with stakeholders to ensure ophthalmology services can continue to deliver for patients.

Workforce expansion

The top-line announcement from Labour on health was the commitment to double the number of medical school places to 15,000 a year, alongside a 10-year plan with the NHS to shift the focus of healthcare out of the hospital and into the community. With a predicted 40% increase in demand expected over the next 20 years, the College has continually advocated for an expansion of medical school places – accompanied by an increase in ophthalmology training places – to help grow the ophthalmology workforce in line with ever-increasing demand, so this commitment is welcome. More local funding for training programmes including Ophthalmic Local Training (OLT) and Ophthalmic Practitioner Training (OPT) to upskill non-medical eye care professionals such as technicians, nurses, orthoptists and optometrists and clear career progression for SAS doctors would ensure the whole workforce can more effectively meet rising patient demand.

Reform of services

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting stressed that commitments to additional funding will come alongside “the change and modernisation that the public is crying out for.” While Labour did not detail what change and modernisation will mean, the party stressed that there would be no major restructuring and they see Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) as the right vehicle for delivery.

What do these announcements mean for ophthalmology?

Both the Conservatives and Labour have set out policy measures that will affect ophthalmology services across England, with the Government focusing on tackling backlogs through initiatives like community diagnostic hubs while suggesting they will develop a long-term workforce plan, and the Labour opposition promising to fund for workforce expansion alongside as-of-yet unspecified reforms. The College will continue to engage with all stakeholders to ensure that current and future policy enables ophthalmology services to deliver high-quality eye care for patients. As part of this work, the College is joining with the Association of Optometrists, RNIB, Macular Society, Fight for Sight, and Roche to host Westminster Eye Health Day in Parliament on 19 October 2022, raising awareness of eye health issues among politicians and policymakers and highlighting what is needed to improve NHS eye care services.

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