COMRES POLLWATCH: NHS 'Humanitarian Crisis': catalyst for change?

By Andrew Hawkins, Chairman 

The British Red Cross said the NHS faces a ‘humanitarian crisis’, but does the public agree?  The NHS was understandably quick to defend itself, while Theresa May described the claim as ‘irresponsible and overblown’.  But how bad a state is the NHS really in?

In our latest monthly poll [1], shared by the Sunday Mirror and Independent, ComRes revisited a set of questions last asked in 2013 about patient experiences, to test if the furore over the Winter Crisis matched wider perceptions.  Here are three broad conclusions:

First, the British Red Cross warning hit home.  Almost half (47%) think the Red Cross was right to describe the NHS as being ‘in a humanitarian crisis’.  But reaction was not entirely predictable: almost one in three Conservative voters agree with that judgment.  Plus, the youngest age group surveyed (18-24) is the most negative about the NHS, while the oldest age group (65+) is the most positive; yet that older group is also the one most exposed to the NHS.

Second, Labour are failing to capitalise on the NHS as an issue.  Forty-three percent of voters believe Theresa May and the Conservatives would do a better job than Jeremy Corbyn and Labour at managing it.  By contrast, only 31% felt Jeremy Corbyn and Labour would do the better job.

Labour strategists will be alarmed by this.  Historically, Labour’s lead over the Conservatives on the NHS has been as reliable as rain on a Bank Holiday weekend.  They have ‘owned’ the issue for decades, especially in Opposition.  From a longer-term perspective, without recovering its lead on the NHS it is hard to see what issue Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party will win an Election on…the economy?  Immigration?  Leadership?

Third, the underlying patient experience is improving.  Comparing with data from 2013, the NHS comes out well.  Perceived standards of care are up 13% points from 58% to 71% (even though voters also perceive a deterioration in standards over the past decade).  The crisis in NHS nursing has abated with a huge improvement in perception.  And the proportion who claim to have experienced ‘unacceptably poor’ NHS care in the past two years has decreased dramatically.

What answer is there to the endless cycle of bad NHS news?  If the solution is money, then the poll found 53% are prepared to pay more in tax if it were earmarked for the NHS (31% are not), while the proportion who support means-tested payments for NHS treatment continues to rise, to almost one in three.

With pressure on NHS resources continuing to intensify, voters might join the dots between a looming humanitarian crisis and the need to find different, hitherto unpalatable ways of funding healthcare.  Crisis could well become a catalyst for change.