NHS staff will get higher pay and there will be no tuition fees for student nurses and midwives under a Labour government, the party is promising.
Labour said the policies would help address staffing shortages in England that had become a “threat to patients”.
The promises mark the first of what are expected to be a series of policy announcements on the NHS by Labour.
But the Conservatives said Labour’s nonsensical economic policies would put the health service at risk.
“A strong NHS needs a strong economy. Only Theresa May and the Conservatives offer the strong and stable leadership we need to secure our growing economy and with it, funding for the NHS and its dedicated staff,” Health Minister Philip Dunne added.
Three specific guarantees have been set out by Labour. These are:
- Scrapping the 1% pay cap in place this Parliament so that pay is increased to a “sustainable level” for all NHS staff
- Reversing the end of bursaries and introduction of tuition fees planned for August for student nurses and midwives
- Tougher rules on safe staffing levels in NHS settings
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said NHS staff had been “ignored, insulted, undervalued, overworked and underpaid” by the Conservative government.
“Enough is enough. What is bad for NHS staff is bad for patients too. Short staffing means reduced services and a threat to patient safety.
“Labour’s new guarantees for NHS staff will help keep services running at the standards which England’s patients expect.”
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Analysis: How much will the policies cost?
The total cost of the policies set out by Labour is difficult to work out.
It estimates the bursary pledge would amount to £800m a year and every 1% extra on pay would cost £350m a year.
But that £350m figure excludes paying doctors more. If that was to happen, the outlay would be closer to the £500m mark.
However, this is all based on the status quo.
Part of Labour’s ambition is to increase the number of front-line staff employed by the NHS, to tackle the workforce shortages.
That could mean another 50,000 staff, according to some estimates. Paying for that could cost billions.
What most people in the NHS are keen to know, from all parties for that matter, is what they are willing to promise in terms of increasing the overall budget.
Last year, the Public Accounts Committee estimated the NHS in England was around 6% short of the frontline staff that it needed.
The report was published after ministers put a halt to a review of safe staffing levels that was being carried out by NHS advisory body, NICE.
Another body, NHS Improvement, has now started looking at the issue, but Labour said it would hand responsibility back to NICE and pass legislation to make recommendations binding.
The move on pay and bursaries has pleased the Royal College of Nursing.
The union has already announced it will be taking soundings from its members about strike action over the pay cap.
It says a combination of pay freezes and caps on pay rises since 2010 have, in effect, led to a 14% pay cut due to the rising cost of living.
It has also fought a vigorous campaign against the scrapping of bursaries and grants, which ministers have argued was needed to increase the number of training places that could be afforded.
RCN general secretary Janet Davies said: “A health service that works for patients must value its staff.”
But she said the political parties should go further and promise to “increase investment” overall.
Keeping bursaries and not introducing tuition fees would cost £800m a year – a figure which would rise by £350m for every 1% rise in pay, according to Labour.
The party has said reversing the reductions in corporation tax would cover the cost of the policies.
But Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb said that was not the answer to the funding pressures in the NHS – corporation tax has been highlighted by Labour as a source of funding for other policies.
“Time and again, Jeremy Corbyn has shown that he is incapable of making the kind of difficult calls that a prime minister must be prepared to take – especially when it comes to something as important as tackling the crisis in our vital NHS and care services.”
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said while the decision to cut bursaries for students was a “very difficult decision”, it would free up funding to train more nurses – as applicants for courses currently outnumber the places available by two to one.
“As a result of that policy change we will be able to train record numbers of nurses in the next few years, thousands more nurses to go on to those wards and relieve the pressure in those hospitals”, he said.
Mr Hunt added a good Brexit outcome was “absolutely critical” to the future of funding for health and social care, but said details would be set out in the Conservative manifesto.
The policies could also have implications on the rest of the UK. Health is a devolved issue – so the changes to bursaries is only taking place in England, while Scotland and Wales have different policies on safe staffing.
But pay recommendations are made on a UK-wide basis by an independent body with the devolved governments then given the power to accept them or not.
If pay restraint in the public sector was eased in England that could lead to similar moves in the rest of the UK.