Alan Mak is MP for Havant, Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board.
In 1944, it was a Conservative Health Minister, Henry Willink, who first set out a blueprint for a universal, free, health service. And for over 40 of the 72 years that the NHS has been in existence it has been under the care of Conservative Governments.
Nonetheless, at every general election Labour, like a broken record, falsely portray the Conservatives as enemies of the NHS. Last December, for example, Jeremy Corbyn’s dodgy dossier claimed the NHS was “up for sale” in UK-US trade talks.
Our modern NHS is very different from the Health Service of 1948, not least because it now employs ten times more doctors and four times more nurses, often in much more specialist roles than their counterparts from yesteryear.
But key to ensuring that our NHS continues to deliver on its founding principle – high quality care for all regardless of wealth – is the reform and innovation that has often been driven by Conservative Ministers. From Sir Keith Joseph leading the NHS’ first major re-organisation in 1973 to William Waldegrave’s Patient Charter in 1991 (later the NHS Constitution) setting out hospital waiting time targets and patients’ rights, Conservatives have steadily modernised the Health Service and put patients at its heart.
Our most recent Conservative Health Secretaries have continued that trend, with Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock both championing the digitisation of the NHS. They acted to meet the rising expectations of patients used to accessing data and services quickly on their phones and tablets. I’ve been proud to contribute towards that work, including last year successfully bringing forward legislation that resulted in the ban on NHS bodies using outdated fax machines and pagers.
Just as new technology is having a transformative impact on how our NHS operates, so too is the on-going Coronavirus outbreak.
This year has tested the NHS like no other in its long history. Our inspirational doctors, nurses, paramedics, and non-clinical NHS staff can be proud of the contribution they have made in the fight against Coronavirus.
But alongside them are the remarkable volunteers from every community. Over 750,000 people have signed up to become NHS Volunteer Responders this year, and they have collectively completed over a million tasks, from delivering prescriptions to making friendly phone calls to shielding patients. In addition, 80,000 people were already volunteering across all acute NHS Trusts in England.
We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build on the foundations laid by these NHS volunteers by launching the NHS Reserves – a new, permanent reservist system for our Health Service modelled on the proven Armed Forces reserves and police special constables.
Last week, I introduced the NHS Reserve Staff Bill in Parliament to create the NHS Reserves, backed by the Health Secretary. The NHS Reserves would provide a formal structure – and a uniform – for some of the volunteers already working within the Health Service. It would also provide a route for retired NHS staff and recent leavers to continue contributing, and welcome new volunteers with relevant clinical and non-clinical skills that the NHS might need during periods of high demand. These would include public health emergencies, seasonal increases in demand, large public events and protests, industrial action, and critical incidents such as terrorist attacks or major accidents.
My Bill has secured wide-ranging support from across our Parliamentary Party. Backers included Graham Brady, Iain Duncan-Smith, Damian Green and Hunt, now chairman of the Health Select Committee, as well as 2019 intake ‘Blue Wall’ MPs including Dehenna Davison, Simon Fell, Stuart Anderson, and Brendan Clarke-Smith. All have all become NHS Reserves Champions for their constituencies. Lord Ashcroft is also a supporter and an early proponent of a reservist system for the NHS.
More MPs are becoming NHS Reserves Champions, and working with our councillors, activists, and members to promote the NHS Reserves at a local level.
I know from my role as Party Vice Chairman how active our members have been in helping with the community response to coronavirus. In many cases this has involved leading local groups delivering food or medical supplies, caring for vulnerable neighbours, or volunteering with the NHS. I hope our Party members can help spread the word and encourage friends, family and colleagues to apply when the NHS Reserves system is up and running properly.
As a Conservative family, we should be proud of our Party’s stewardship of the NHS. I hope the creation of the NHS Reserves will show that once again it is us Conservatives that are leading the way when it comes to thinking about how our Health Service adapts, innovates, and thrives in response to new challenges. Whilst the Covid-19 outbreak has brought so many negatives, the new NHS Reserves can serve as permanent and positive legacy that we can all support with pride.