Nick Hoile is an Account Director at MHP Health and a Conservative Party member in Dulwich and West Norwood. He writes here in a personal capacity.   

Labour sailed into the General Election with a double-digit lead on the NHS. Lord Ashcroft’s polling found that nearly half (47 per cent) of voters said Labour had the best approach to the health service, a full 18 points ahead of the Conservatives.

Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham seized their opportunity. They drew up a distasteful plan to ‘weaponise the NHS’. They attacked ‘the Tory cuts plan’ and warned of ‘more Tory privatisation’.  They claimed that ‘the NHS as you know it cannot survive five more years of David Cameron’.

Thankfully, their cynical ‘save the NHS’ campaign did not fool the voters on whose support they had relied. The Conservative message that a strong NHS relied on a strong economy rang true, and the Tory campaign successfully highlighted Labour’s failures in Wales and Mid-Staffs.

But we should not be complacent. A lack of confidence in the Conservatives’ record on the NHS – and, worse, concern about our motives – remains a key strategic weakness for the party. To continue to grow the Conservative family we need to demonstrate both our good intentions and the benefits of our NHS plan.

The NHS is already working to deliver the Five Year Forward View, the next wave of much-needed health reforms that are being implemented quietly without the need for major new legislation. While the heavy lifting is being done behind the scenes, there is an opportunity for the Government to present a bold NHS ‘retail offer’ to win over the doubters.

But what could be done without breaking the bank? Here are six ‘pro-patient’ policy ideas:

  • Take on the trade unions to deliver the manifesto commitment of a truly seven-day NHS, and go further by requiring more early morning and late evening opening as part of the same contract negotiation.  People rightly expect some health services – particularly general practice, primary care, and public health – to be available when they want to use them, not when it is convenient for the NHS to provide them.
  • Promote and extend patient choice of GP practices.  Thanks to the Coalition, since January people have been free to register with a GP practice wherever they choose. This has enabled people to see a doctor near their workplace or their children’s schools, and has freed people living in poorer areas from the second class services they were previously trapped with.  Patient choice should be more heavily publicised, and the number of participating GP practices greatly expanded.
  • Freeze the prescription charge.  The prescription charge (£8.20 per item) is a regressive ‘treatment tax’ that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have rightly scrapped. It is unlikely the Government could justify the £500 million a year needed to scrap the charge outright in England, but a freeze for the duration of the Parliament would be inexpensive and send an important message that the Conservatives are on patients’ side.
  • Guarantee access to the most clinically and cost-effective treatments for all. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is a world leader in assessing the clinical and cost-effectiveness of new treatments. But in some parts of the country the NHS does not always implement NICE’s recommendations in full, leaving some patients to go without new drugs or procedures that would save lives and save money. The Government has successfully negotiated the first cap on growth in the drugs budget, and we now need stronger rules to guarantee equal access to the full range of cost-effective treatments recommended by NICE.
  • Shift the debate on immigration and the NHS. Conservatives should want British people to have the best healthcare in the world, and that means recruiting the very best nurses, doctors, and scientists we can find. About 20 per cent of the current NHS workforce is non-British, and if we need to supplement our home-grown talent we should be unapologetic in bringing the brightest and the best healthcare professionals to our shores. Immigrants coming to fill critical NHS roles should be separately reported from headline immigration figures.
  • Create a Department of Health and Social Care. The Government’s flagship social care policy of capping costs at £72,000 has been delayed until 2020. To prove that Conservatives remain on the side of older people and their families, the Department of Health should become the Department of Health and Social Care. The move would better reflect the existing remit of the department, which already has a Minister for Social Care, and put social care on a par with health in political parlance for the first time.

Conservatives can deliver a better NHS for all – and building confidence and trust in our approach will be a key part of helping the party return with a majority in 2020 and beyond.