With the general election now imminent, the hot topic of the NHS is being discussed more than ever before. Which party will protect it the best? Does it need to change? Read on to see!

The NHS: from launch to date

The NHS was launched by the post-war Labour government in 1948 with the ideal that good healthcare should be available to all, regardless of wealth, and with the principle that the service should be financed entirely from taxation.

The NHS is now one of the world’s largest publicly funded health services, and employs more than 1.6million people. Its funding still comes directly from taxation. Following a term under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, David Cameron vows that the NHS is “safe”. Yet evidence (and headlines) shows that the NHS is under severe strain, with significant pressure on A&E departments, GPs, community services and social care.

Whilst David Cameron has denied privatisation of the NHS over the last five years, his party has previously questioned the NHS’ affordability. To counteract ever-widening spending gaps, alternative options could be reduced entitlement, top-up charges, and more private GPs and private medical insurance, with the extreme being a move towards a United States style health system. However critics have expressed their concern that moving away from the NHS' 1948 core principle could bring with it the prioritising of profit over patient wellbeing.

It was recently announced that our health service requires an additional minimum of £8 billion a year by 2020 to fill a spending gap. As a result, dealing with the expected shortfall in NHS funding has become a key hot topic in this year’s election debates, as the risk of losing our health service becomes a reality.

Pledges to “save” the NHS

The Conservative Party has notably committed to a minimum increase of £8 billion NHS funding per year, alongside their promises of 7-day access to GPs, extension of opening times, and an increase of funding for mental health care. Setting the additional funding at a minimum, we assume they have acknowledged the possibility that running, and improving, the NHS will cost more than £8 billion further funding a year. Seemingly omitted from these attractive pledges, however, are the sources of these committed funds.

The Labour Party is traditionally the most trusted party when it comes to managing the NHS. Their “ten year plan” addresses issues with the ageing population, and promotes integration of health and social care services. Yet they have rejected the request for a further £8 billion, and commit instead to £2.5 billion a year, through its “Time to Care Fund”, in order to hire more NHS staff. This will be funded from tackling “tax avoidance”, the mansion tax, and new levies on tobacco companies. Whilst detailing the sources of funding instills more confidence in their pledges’ likelihood, the party falls significantly short from the NHS’ required minimum, whilst still promising additional extras such as GP appointments within 48 hours and cancer test results within one week.

The Liberal Democrats do pledge to invest the £8 billion a year by 2020, but with only an initial £1 billion per year until 2017/18, which will be concerning to those parts of the NHS which are already struggling. Alongside the limited funding, improvements are still promised: a £500 million investment in mental health, reforming payment systems and contributing to additional research. Their pledges include significant detail for the further integration of health and social care, though interestingly none of the three main parties have pledged to increase social care spending.

The Green Party stands out in its pledge for an additional £12 billion a year, paid for by extra alcohol and tobacco taxes, suggestion of an "NHS tax", and with a serious drive to stop the increasing privatisation of the NHS. UKIP promises a much smaller £3 billion a year, funded by pulling out of Europe and giving Scotland less money, whilst also compelling migrants and visitors to the UK to have private health insurance.

The future of the NHS

It gives no great comfort that the Conservatives' promise to foot the required bill from day one is not supported by details of the sources of funding, and that many of the parties are not able to even promise the funds needed to fill the shortfall. The high chances of a coalition in this election will muddy the waters further.

By the time of the next general election, our health service may have changed dramatically. Perhaps it is too optimistic to hope that the NHS’ shortfall has been grossly miscalculated, or our next government finds a few billion down the side of the Downing Street sofa. In any event, protecting arguably our most precious asset should be made a priority.