UK election pledges fall short of $48 billion health funding gap, think tank says

FILE PHOTO: The NHS London Ambulance Service sign is seen on an ambulance in London

LONDON (Reuters) - Election pledges by Britain's governing Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party do not set out how they plan to meet a 38 billion pound ($48 billion) funding shortfall in the National Health Service (NHS) in England, a report said on Thursday.

The performance of the state-run NHS is a major concern for voters ahead of a national election on July 4, as it has been hobbled by COVID and industrial action, while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has struggled to bring down long waiting lists.

The next government will need to increase healthcare funding by 4.5% per year in real terms over the next five years to help with COVID recovery, meet rising needs and improve services, analysis by the Health Foundation think tank said.

That means an extra 46 billion pounds of funding is needed by 2029/30, but current planned increases in public spending would only deliver an 8 billion pound increase in the health budget, and neither leading party has clear plans to substantially close that gap.

"The health service is in crisis and all the main political parties have said they want to fix it – yet the funding they have so far promised falls well short of the level needed to make improvements," said Anita Charlesworth, Director of the Health Foundation's REAL Centre.

While Labour and the Conservatives have proposed extra funding for a handful of specific health policies, neither have outlined general increases for baseline NHS spending.

The winning party is set to hold a spending review, which could allocate more funding to the NHS at the expense of other departments.

However, without such allocations, both Labour and Conservative plans for healthcare funding would leave the NHS with tighter budgets than under the austerity policies pursued by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition ten years ago.

"An incoming government therefore will face incredibly difficult choices. Either increased taxes to provide more funding, reduce spending on other public services, or see the NHS do less," Charlesworth said.

"The risk ... if you cut other public services to protect the NHS, is that over the longer term, you actually make the health of the population worse, and the challenge facing the NHS even greater."

Labour says it will deliver growth, helping it plug gaps in public finances without raising personal taxes. Charlesworth said the Health Foundation had not modelled different growth.

"If the economy grew more strongly, this problem would be much smaller," she said.

($1 = 0.7857 pounds)

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Mark Potter)