A new long-term plan for England’s National Health Service will save almost half a million more lives and “expand care for patients and their families at every stage of life”, Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, said on Monday.
The plan, promised when Theresa May last year pledged an extra £20.5bn a year for the NHS within five years, includes what Mr Stevens described as the biggest ever investment in mental health services. They will receive at least £2.3bn more a year by 2023-24.
However, health experts criticised the lack of a strategy to fill widespread gaps in the NHS workforce and a continued delay in long-promised reforms to social care, seen as crucial to easing demand on the health service.
Mr Stevens indicated that many of the changes would be phased in over a decade, because of the need to take account of financial pressures across the NHS and increased demand from a growing and ageing population.
Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said it would take 10 years to “clear up the mess the Tories have made” of the NHS.
The plan claims that about 23,000 premature deaths and 50,000 hospital admissions will be prevented over the next 10 years by putting more than 100,000 patients with heart problems through a healthy living and exercise programme every year.
Overall, the plan aims to prevent approaching 500,000 deaths, including averting 150,000 heart attacks, strokes and dementia cases.
It predicts that cancer survival will have risen sharply by 2028, partly through increasing early cancer diagnoses. Maternity-related deaths will be halved by 2025. Other measures include action to relieve pressure on accident and emergency departments.
Mrs May, who will announce the plan with Mr Stevens, defended the government over the failure in recent years to meet key targets for NHS waiting times.
She told the BBC that the health service was seeing and treating more people but targets were missed “because despite the fact we’re actually doing more, the demand is outstripping that”.
Following calculations by the Health Foundation, a charity, that public health funding will have been cut by close to £1bn between 2014-15 and 2019-20, she insisted that the plan would focus on prevention, early diagnosis and treatment.
Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Health Foundation, said promises to improve mental health and other NHS services were welcome “but making them a reality will be extremely tough given growing pressures on services, chronic staff shortages and cuts to other parts of the health and care system”.
She cautioned also that the NHS’s ability to deliver the long-term plan would depend on wider political choices. “Without a solution to the growing crisis in social care, people will continue to suffer unnecessarily, and more pressure will be piled on the NHS,” she said.
Later, Matt Hancock, health and social care secretary, told Sky News that the government’s green paper on social care would be published “in the coming weeks” and would sit “alongside this long-term plan for the NHS”.
The British Medical Association pointed to more than 100,000 staff vacancies in the NHS and warned that the government’s aspirations were “groundless if we don’t have the staff to deliver it”.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, added that to meet the government’s ambitions for the NHS over the next decade “we need the right staff with the right skills . . . even if you gave the health service its £20bn up front, it would not be able to provide the care people need”, he said, adding that it was “disappointing that the planned workforce strategy looks as if it will be delayed until later this year”.