“Better healthcare cannot be seen as expendable today because of the global economic downturn, when in yesterday’s world of relative prosperity, it was essential,” health secretary Alan Johnson told UNISON’s health conference in Harrogate today.
“The NHS does not become less important for families facing economic uncertainty – it becomes more important.”
With the government’s investment in the NHS in recent years bringing UK health expenditure “very close” to the EU average, as a proportion of national wealth, further growth will not be as rapid, he admitted, but he assured delegates: “There can be no question of scaling back or cutting services.
“We have heard predictable calls from certain commentators that public services must take their share of the pain in the global recession; that if people in the private sector are losing their jobs, the response must be to throw nurses and teachers on the dole queue,” the minister told delegates.
“Those advocating a freeze on public-sector pay believe that we should cut our way out of the recession,” he added. “This government, together with every other G20 country, believes we must grow our way out of recession.”
Praising the achievements of the NHS and health staff in recent years, Mr Johnson also recognised that many factors affecting people’s health are “only tenuously” linked to areas directly within the Department of Health’s remit.
Recalling the Black report of the 1970s, which sat on the shelf during the “two lost decades” of Tory rule, he revealed that the government will be setting up “a new national support team to tackle high infant mortality rates in the most deprived parts of the country.”
This will “work with local health professionals and others to tackle poor housing, child poverty, maternal obesity, smoking and teenage pregnancy.”