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'Brexit chaos cannot be allowed to hold up the NHS plan any longer'

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The latest casualty of Brexit appears to be the NHS long-term plan. It was due in December but as the weeks have gone by and we find ourselves in the final run-up to Christmas, I have it on concrete authority that it will now be published in the new year – possibly the week starting 7 January.

It’s possible, of course, that the scale of the document – a 10-year plan for the health service – means that it simply wasn’t ready in time. After all, it is not something that should be rushed. I gather there have been many draft versions over the last months since it was announced.

But the fact that the government’s attention is almost completely focused on Brexit cannot have helped the process. On Monday night, health secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that he had already ordered full ‘no deal’ planning across the NHS – whatever that means – due to the potential impact on staffing and drug supplies.

”The NHS desperately needs a long-term plan that is not constantly vulnerable to the whims of politicians”

Brexit sideshow aside, the new health service plan brings with it a lot of expectation. I hope it delivers. It is intended to set out how the £20.5bn annual budget increase promised by prime minister Theresa May will be spent. For the first time, it is also due to include a substantial chapter on workforce planning.

The NHS desperately needs a long-term plan that is not constantly vulnerable to the whims of politicians. The last time it had one covering 10 years was way back in 2000, when I was at the start of my career. Its publication was quite an event.

It introduced a raft of new funding and ushered in a whole host of waiting targets, as well as promising additional beds and an extra 20,000 nurses among other things. A “concordat” with the private sector to provide extra capacity added an element of controversy. Times – and healthcare – have changed since then, but two crucial NHS challenges remain unsolved – funding and staffing. Solutions to both have thus far escaped politicians.

Inevitably some of what may be in the new plan has leaked out. According to a report in The Guardian, mature students in England will in future be offered £5,000 to embark on a career in mental health or learning disability nursing in a new bid to tackle shortages. Both fields, as we know, are experiencing workforce crises even greater than the rest of the service, so action of some kind is definitely needed.

Neither NHS England nor the Department of Health and Social Care have denied the truth of the report, which suggests it’s probably true at least this week. By the time the document sees the light of day, the plan may have changed again.

It is highly unlikely that the chaos around Brexit is going away anytime soon. However, it must not be allowed to hold up the NHS plan indefinitely, as too much is at stake. The plan cannot be treated as dismissively as the government’s social care green paper, initially due in July, and still nowhere to be seen. Both are crucial and deserve urgent government attention.

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