Spring budget – £6bn to cut waiting lists and digitise processes

  • 6th March 2024

Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announces extra cash to boost NHS services and drive efficiencies, but critics call for a longer-term vision and denounce lack of clarity on social care investment

Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced investment in NHS IT. Picture by Simon Walker/No 10 Downing Street

“Making changes to the NHS on the scale we need in not cheap, but we need a more-productive state, not a bigger state.”

This was the take-home message from Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, as he gave his much-anticipated Spring Budget speech to a packed House of Commons earlier today.

In it, he announced that a ‘landmark public sector productivity plan’ would be published later today aimed at cutting form filling by doctors using AI, digitising hospital processes, and improving the NHS App.

And he pledged an extra £3.5bn to boost outdated NHS IT systems – planned to start in 2025/26 after the upcoming General Election – together with £2.5bn to meet pressures for the coming year and tackle growing waiting lists.

“I want this groundbreaking agreement with the NHS to be a model for all our public services, including education, the police, courts and public government”, he said.

A digital overhaul

The former Health Secretary added: “The investment needed to modernise NHS IT systems so they are as good as the best in the world costs £3.4bn, but it helps unlock £35bn of savings – 10 times that amount.

“With that new investment, we will slash the 13 million hours lost by doctors and nurses every year through outdated IT systems.

“We will cut down, and potentially halve, form-filling by doctors using AI.”

Hunt also promised to digitise operating theatre processes, a measure he said would enable medics to do an extra 200,000 operations a year.

“We will fund improvements to help doctors read MRI and CT scans more accurately and quickly, speeding up results for 130,000 patients every year and saving thousands of lives, something I know would have delighted my brother Charlie, who I recently lost to cancer,” he stated.

And all hospitals will use electronic patient records, ‘making the NHS the largest digitally-integrated healthcare system in the world’.

Driving efficiencies

Other NHS IT improvements will include improving the NHS App so it can confirm and modify all appointments.

Hunt said this would reduce up to 500,000 missed appointments.

There will also be a new NHS staff rostering app aimed at cutting down on the use of expensive agency staff.

However, the struggling social care sector was hardly mentioned in his speech, aside from extra cash for local authorities, including £165m for children’s social care placements, and a commitment to improving data and AI across services.

Commenting on the speech, Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: “Today’s announcement shows the Government continues to back the NHS and the £2.45bn of extra funding for next year ensures we have the support we need to make continued progress on our key priorities for patients.

“Adopting the latest technology is already having an impact on the way we deliver services for patients – including getting your prescriptions on the NHS App and virtual wards which let people recover at home.

“The significant £3.4bn investment in capital to fund new technology means the NHS can now commit to deliver 2% annual productivity growth in the final two years of the next Parliament, which will unlock tens of billions of savings.”

A sticking plaster

And NHS Providers’ chief executive, Sir Julian Hartley said the extra cash would ‘offer a much-needed, but temporary, respite from financial pressures’ facing the NHS.

He added: “The Chancellor had a key opportunity to put NHS finances back on track today after a year in which high inflation, disruptive industrial action, and rising demand for care have left gaping holes in trust budgets.

“[NHS leaders] need to see long-term, multi-year investment in the health service which allows health leaders to plan for the future instead of this stop-start approach to NHS funding which leaves them constantly worrying about budget cuts followed by quick-fix, short-term funding announcements.”

Experts at the Nuffield Trust health think tank also raised concerns over the short-term vision and the stalling of funding until after the election.

Short-term solutions

Chief executive, Thea Stein, said: “The aspiration to earmark £3.4bn for investment in technology in the NHS from next year is a positive recognition that long-term investment in health services is critical.

“But today’s budget does not give much clarity on where the funding is coming from and postpones the spending until 2025/26, long after the General Election.

“The £2.5bn top up in NHS day-to-day spending announced by the Chancellor represents the bare minimum needed to reflect current costs and will do little to put the NHS’s finances in a healthier position, leaving it with significantly-lower funding levels than needed to fund the Government’s Workforce Plan.

“The additional investment in AI and technology to improve patient care and speed up test results are welcome, but the conversation about productivity needs a rethink.

“New technology will take time, patience, and working together with NHS leaders and staff to yield results.

“In addition, the NHS budget hasn’t kept up with cost pressures, which has forced the NHS to regularly raid capital budgets, near to £1bn this year alone.

“There is no guarantee we won’t see this again.”

Social care – a missed opportunity

And he hit out at the lack of reference to social care services, stating: “Once again, social care has received no long-term certainty at all.

“If this is the final fiscal event before an election, then the Government’s achievements on social care remain thin.

“While the confirmation of the extra £500m for councils and a commitment to improving data and AI in social care are welcome, the harsh reality is that thousands of people go without the care they need as the sector struggles across the board.

“With council finances as precarious as they are, and no additional funding to cover growing costs forthcoming in today’s budget, they will likely struggle to sustain day-to-day delivery of social care services, let alone improve access to care or bring about much-needed comprehensive reform.

“This precarious financial backdrop across health and care means that ahead of a UK general election, and given the desire to turn around long waits, access to care and improve crumbling infrastructure, all political parties should be very cautious about promises that can’t be delivered.”

His comments were supported by Professor Martin Green OBE, chief executive of Care England, who said that, according to its research carried out in conjunction with national learning disability charity, Hft, 43% of adult social care providers have closed services or handed back contracts to the local authority as a result of financial pressures.

“This year’s Budget made it clear that the Government has no intention to make good on its five-year-old promise to ‘fix social care’,” he added.

“While financial support was given to the child social care system, which was recognised as broken, no such lifeline was given to adult social care.

“Adult social care is an essential service to the public. The cries of our sector have fallen on deaf ears.

“A stable adult social care system is vital to the health of the NHS, but this relationship is clearly not appreciated.

“Care services are vital to local economies and employment opportunities, but this has also been overlooked.

“This was the Government’s last chance saloon to deliver on its promise but with no long-term commitment to funding the system, the situation grows increasingly perilous.

“Our sector continues to move ever closer to a cliff edge and we all want good quality care for our loved ones – now we need those in Government to care.”

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