The prime minister has promised to “protect the NHS budget and continue to invest more” in the next parliament.
Referring to when his party formed the coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, David Cameron said “we protected the NHS budget”.
“The next Conservative government will protect the NHS budget and continue to invest more,” he said in his speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.
“I am someone who has relied on the NHS, whose family knows more than most how important it is”
The commitment means a future Conservative government would maintain growth of at least the pace of inflation, delivering at least flat funding in real terms, but is not currently committing to greater increases.
Speaking at the conference earlier in the week, health secretary Jeremy Hunt indicated the government could not afford greater than inflation spending increases for the NHS.
Mr Cameron used his speech to heavily criticise Labour’s record on the health service, citing the past care failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust. “It was the Labour party who gave us the scandal of Mid Staffs,” he said.
He accused the opposition of saying “the old rubbish about the Conservatives and the NHS” and “spreading complete and utter lies” at its conference last week.
He said Labour “will never understand, and we will never forget, that you can only have a strong NHS if you have a strong economy”.
Mr Cameron said the government’s NHS achievements were “only possible because we managed the budget”, giving the example of the cancer drugs fund. “More people are hearing those magic words – ‘all clear’,” he added.
The prime minister said “for me, this is personal,” emphasising his experience with the health service before the death of his son Ivan.
“I am someone who has relied on the NHS, whose family knows more than most how important it is, who knows what it’s like to go to hospital night after night with a child in your arms, knowing that when you get there, you have people who will care for that child and love that child like their own,” he said.
“How dare they suggest I would ever put that at risk for other people’s children,” he said, to a standing ovation from the audience.
“It is difficult to overstate how badly a real injection of funding will be needed”
However, the Foundation Trust Network said the “harsh and uncomfortable reality is that neither this nor the pledge made by Labour last week goes very far in closing the financial gap facing the NHS”.
“Demand for NHS care is rising by 4% a year; in the first three months of this financial year, for example, hospital emergency admissions were up by 4% and the most urgent ambulance journeys by 7%.
“Under both pledges, the NHS’s income would lag a long way behind the demands being placed upon it and the service would have had 10 continuous years of its lowest ever income growth.”
Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Staff will feel some degree of relief that the NHS will have its budget protected under a future Conservative government.
“However, this merely mirrors the financial situation during this parliament,” he said. “With the twin challenges of an ageing population and public health emergencies, it is difficult to overstate how badly a real injection of funding will be needed.”
He noted that the NHS was already becoming a “battleground at the next election”.