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Home » NHS » The ‘NHS Five Year Forward Plan’ is a clever marketing stunt, and is barely a statement of strategy

The ‘NHS Five Year Forward Plan’ is a clever marketing stunt, and is barely a statement of strategy

5 year plan


There’s no “magic money tree”, except when you’re signing off HS3 on a ‘nod and a wink’ for £7 billion, or interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan for £30 billion.

As a piece of marketing, for Simon Stevens to set out a stall for the rôle of the NHS in a global economy, “the five year plan” was nice and succinct. As a piece of strategy, it is dreadful. It’s dreadful – even if you decide to take the view that health policy is entirely market-driven or “value-based”, and not in any way written through a sophisticated clinical prism.

The irony of a “five year plan” for the National Health Service is pretty quick to see. “Five year plans” were, of course, used by Stalinist Russia. Nazi Germany preferred ‘four year plans’ as a strategy for war readiness, in comparison.

It is reported that the “Five Year Forward View”, published last week by NHS England, is a collaboration between six leading NHS groups including Monitor, Health Education England, the NHS Trust Development Authority, Public Health England, the Care Quality Commission and NHS England.

And yet ironically the future of two of the contributing organisations is under doubt. In a fringe meeting earlier this at the Labour Party Conference, it was again mooted what the precise function of Monitor might be. This is because it is definite that an incoming Labour Party government, in its first Queen Speech, will repeal the Health and Social Care Act (2012), a much loathed piece of legislation. This leaves the precise functions of Monitor uncertain.

One possibility which Burnham is seriously contemplating is whether Monitor, if it continues to exist, serves to regulate the integration of services as would be expected in ‘whole person care’. Burnham intends to introduce ‘NHS preferred provider’, which could insist on the NHS being the lead provider in contracts for as long as ten years in the ‘prime contractor model‘.

And the future of the Care Quality Commission was put on a cliff-edge with the report of the Sir John Oldham Commission, again to do with whole person care. It would make much more sense to reform the regulators to oversee health and care with a single regulator in future. This would again be in line with the regulation of health and care professionals, much needed, and proposed by the English Law Commission, but kicked into the long grass by the current Government as it ran out of time.

The “5 year Forward View” to all intents and purposes reads like a marketing document, a wish-list for further privatisation of the NHS. It may ‘pack a punch‘, from the BBC which has unreservedly succeeded in throttling any discussion of the NHS reforms. But talk of ‘accountable care organisations’, as developed in Spain and the United States, and the emphasis on preventive health packages so keenly sold by multinational corporates, are paradigmatic of a wish-list of a privateer.

The document is a naked shill, intended to carry on the ‘case for change’ which has been made exhaustively by think tanks such as the King’s Fund which, some might say, were instrumental in giving the catastrophic policy of market competition in the National Health Service some legs in the first place.

But the runes are clearly  there.

Take, for example, the seemingly-modest proposal of “integrated care commissioning”. The policy of personal budgets in the full glare of sunlight looks incredibly anaemic. Unanswered questions exist how a universal health system is going to be successfully merged with a means-tested care system. NHS England tried, unsuccessfully, to head this issue off at the pass as far back as in 2012.

integrated care commissioning

Personal health budgets, which Simon Stevens has continued to speak moistly of, are the perfect vehicle for introducing ‘top ups’ and ‘copayments’, threatening the fundamental principle of universal, free-at-the-point-of-need.

And moves, not contained in the ‘5 year plan’, spell out an ominous direction of travel. It has just been announced that the much maligned contract for processing ATOS, given under the last Government to ATOS, is to be given to a company called Maximus, which has a proven track record in handing long term care packages in other jurisdictions.

“Independent” think tanks have never shrugged off successfully the “power of the prepaid cards”, see for example the DEMOS initiative. It has always been vehemently denied that there will be no merging of universal credit and healthcare provision, although Liam Byrne’s account of Jennie Macklin in Australia painted a rather different story in an article in the Guardian provocatively entitled “Let’s help disabled people achieve their full potential“.

Like a multi-national corporate document, the “5 year plan” is high on marketing but poor on strategy. A good example of this is given on page 36 in relation to a ‘threat’ facing the National Health Service, that of recurrent pay freezes to the majority of nurses whilst the economy is reputed to be recovering.

The seemingly innocuous line, at the end of page 35, reads: “For example as the economy returns to growth, NHS pay will need to stay broadly in line with private sector wages in order to recruit and retain frontline staff.” But it is well known that any wish to pay nurses a wage that reflects the value that runs through their work like letters in a stick of rock will be strongly resisted by the Treasury, while the Conservative Party will prefer further to tattoo the words of low taxes onto his breast plate of ideology.

There are other clear examples of the document clearly lacking in clarity. For example, page 33 sees a promotion of ‘personalised medicine’, how the NHS and “our partners” (meaning in the third and private sector, actually) might deliver the genome based ‘revolution’. Again, the document’s thrust is one of marketing, not clear strategy. There is no mention of the changes in resource allocation which would be required to serve this revolution, essentially seeing hardworking taxpayers subsidise the shareholder dividends or surpluses of large corporate-like charities. There is absolutely no mention of the changes in the legislative framework that would be needed, as in the United States, to prevent genetic information non-discrimination. But here again the document serves its marketing function – as a prospective prospectus for would-be investors wishing to spot lucrative opportunities in the NHS as a data mine.

Like there is no mention of “NHS preferred provider”, unsurprisingly there is no mention of “whole person care”. And yet, even if Labour fail to win an outright majority, it will seek to implement this being the largest party in Government. And this policy is set to see a profound change in the landscape of health and care provision for England.

In any business strategy, one is obliged to think of the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental headwinds (affectionately known as “PESTLE” to business strategists). A good example of social changes in the five years might have been, for example, a change in direction of the NHS being seen as resentment as costing much money, despite its striking efficiency, but one which values its workforce (for example in the salary of most of its nurses).

Looking at the political headwinds, it is quite incredible for example there is no mention of trade agreements such as TTIP and the investor-to-state dispute settlement clauses. If this ‘5 year forward plan’ had been at all serious, it would have been included, not least as it is a headwind which could drastically throw off course further the direction of travel of the NHS as a state-run health service.

Simon Stevens’ vision is a ‘charismatic vision’ of sorts. But a vision does not have to be particularly credible for it to get populist appeal or succeed. It just needs to be communicated clearly, with supine and compliant supporters in the trade media.

If the document were a ‘heads up’ for how we could afford a NHS through general taxation which was genuinely universal and free at the point of need, this document would have served a function. As it is, the document is a lubricator for mechanisms which could optimise the part that the private sector has to play, with no mention of the dogs being unleashed in the global marketplace – in much the same way Cameron refused to signpost “the top down reorganisation”. It is impossible for a strategy document for the NHS simply to airbrush out the political and legal factors which will be at play in the lifetime of the next Government. As it is, the NHS ‘5-year forward view’ is a basic piece of marketing, which as a strategic plan scores 0/10.



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