Shadow health secretary Diane Abbott has repeated a pledge to restore bursaries for student nurses and highlighted the threat to health visitor numbers from council cuts.
She also called for government reassurances about the rights of NHS workers from other European Union countries to remain in the UK following a “Brexit”.
“I want to make it clear that Labour will restore the bursary”
The local sustainability plans recently drawn up by NHS organisations across England would also be scrutinised and, where necessary, opposed, she said told the Labour Party conference yesterday.
Referring to the government’s seven-day NHS policy, Ms Abbott suggested the dispute with junior doctors was symptomatic of a “collapse in morale among NHS workers generally”.
She claimed the Conservative government had “ill repaid the dedication of NHS workers”, highlighting her own mother’s career as a nurse.
“My mother came to this country from Jamaica as a pupil nurse,” said Ms Abbott. “She worked in the NHS until she retired… and she always gave above and beyond.
“The NHS gave her dignity and a vocation, and she gave the NHS her absolute commitment and all her working life,” said the Labour health spokeswoman in her keynote speech.
She called on delegates to “think of women like my mother” when policy commentators described immigrants as a drain on public services.
On a related topic, she described the Leave campaign’s claim that Brexit would mean £350m pounds a week more for the NHS “as a lie”.
She said that over the coming months, Labour would be “battling to protect the interests of working people in the Brexit negotiations”.
“We need to remember the 55,000 EU workers in the NHS and the 80,000 EU workers in social care,” she said.
“Our health and social care system depends on these workers,” she said. “We need to be clear that an end to freedom of movement could be disaster for the NHS and social care, and we need to demand assurances from government about the EU workers already here.”
“We need to demand assurances about the EU workers already here”
In addition, Ms Abbott described the planned withdrawal of bursaries for student nurses as “another important issue”, reiterating some of the concerns she raised in a letter to Nursing Times earler this year.
“Many students will not be able to afford to study without the bursary and others will be frightened of debt,” she said. “I want to make it clear that Labour will restore the bursary.”
Ms Abbott – who briefly served as a shadow public health minister under Ed Miliband – also highlighted that it was currently “health visitor week”.
“They do a vital job of work with mothers and families but they are threatened by Tory cuts to public health,” she told delegates at the conference in Liverpool.
In addition, Ms Abbott noted her suspicion about local sustainability and transformation plans (STPs), which have been drawn up over the past year at the request of NHS England.
The plans, intended to show how local health economies will evolve in order to both improve services while at the same time save money, are due to be implemented from this autumn.
“Some local plans may be a good idea in principle but, increasingly, STPs seem like a vehicle to drive through cuts and closures,” said Ms Abbott.
“I have already led a debate on these STPs in parliament and, where they are purely about cuts, Labour will fight them,” she stated.
Ms Abbott went on to add that Labour was “committed to halting and reversing the tide of privatisation and marketization” in the NHS.
She said a future Labour government would repeal the Health and Social Care Act as the “first step towards undoing the damaging and wasteful marketisation that has been inflicted over many years”.
She also said that the party would “not sign another” private finance initiative, if it was returned to power, and would set up a monitoring unit to support NHS trusts in holding contractors to account.
Abbott warns about loss of bursaries and Brexit
Ms Abbott said PFI – which was introduced under the last Labour administration largely to finance rapid hospital building – was a “huge burden” that was costing the NHS a total of £1.8bn a year.
In addition, she warned of a “gathering storm” facing social care, resulting from cuts in funding for local government.
“This is adding to the pressures on the NHS,” she said. “Overstretched accident and emergency departments have too many elderly people coming in because they cannot access social care.
“And patients who are ready to go home cannot be discharged because there is no social care package,” she added. “Elderly people are bearing the brunt of cuts to social care.”
Ms Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, finished by pledging investment in mental health services.
“My mother was a mental health nurse,” she said. “I saw through the prism of her working life that mental health has long been the Cinderella of the NHS.
“The delays in accessing timely mental health treatment around the country are unacceptable,” she said. “We want an end to shame and an end to the tacit acceptance that the mentally ill are somehow second-class citizens in our healthcare system.”