Greater Manchester is set to become the first English region to get full control of its £6 billion budget for health and social care. The move is a smart one by George Osborne, positioning the Tories on the side of devolved local powers whilst splitting Labour who are torn on the deal.
Despite broad consensus on the need for integrated health and social care, the Greater Manchester announcement has created a political rift and raised questions of whether integration will generate cash savings, or whether creating a more streamlined system will simply lead to further NHS re-organisation and uncertainty for both patients and healthcare providers. Greater Manchester will have to find a way to merge free hospital care with means tested social care. And, integration throws up a number of logistical challenges. Significant work will have to be done to ensure that the technical aspects of joined up care are in place if the plan is to prove a success.
Critics and supporters of the deal alike will be watching as a political rift develops. Labour are divided. The plans have been backed by Ed Balls, and the local leaders responsible for negotiating the deal with George Osborne are all Labour.
Andy Burnham, however, has isolated himself from his own party, slamming the plan with claims that by devolving both budgets and power regionally, we risk the very notion of a ‘National’ Health Service and the creation of a ‘two-tier’ NHS. He has gone as far to suggest that the deal would no longer be on offer in May, if Labour is successful.
This is surprising as integrated health and social care has been central to Burnham and Labour’s general election campaign. This is in addition to the fact that Burnham is an MP in Greater Manchester and risks alienating the local Labour leaders who have worked so hard to negotiate the deal.
What is more, Burnham’s concerns appear to be unfounded. As Greater Manchester will continue to adhere to national quality standards and waiting times, it is unlikely that a ‘two-tier’ NHS will be created. Instead, many believe there is real potential to create a service tailored to the needs of the local community that breaks down barriers and streamlines care into one joined up system. The plans appear to offer more flexibility in how services are delivered and allow a greater focus on health prevention and promotion.
As we await further clarity on the details of the deal, it remains to be seen whether the Conservatives have edged ahead on the NHS with this deal. If the Tory’s now have the economy AND the NHS, where does that leave Ed Milliband and the Labour Party with just ten weeks to go until the General Election?