As expected, all three major political parties have this week made strong references to public, or, as they most commonly term it, preventive health in their election manifestos.
Ahead of the General Election on 6 May, the Conservative party have, at least superficially, made the most explicit commitment, with their pledge to re-title the signs outside Richmond House “The Department for Public Health”. As we already learnt in their draft manifesto back in January, they intend to rechannel public health funding to the most deprived areas, offering a financial “premium” to target health inequalities. Confusion reigns as to how this might be implemented, and the manifesto in general is long on the whats, but short on the hows, but the proposals are certainly attractively packaged, at least for the floating voter.
The present incumbents have of course to defend their record, as well as identify areas where they could do better. Labour face the accusation, made in the Tory manifesto, that inequality has increased on their watch. An interesting spin on this was printed by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, but Labour’s manifesto is relatively weak on how they would further level the playing field. The author of the Labour manifesto, Ed Miliband had previously trailed the idea of universal free school meals, something that FPH had also touted in our manifesto. This pledge is somewhat toned down in the manifesto proper, instead promising to “trial free school meals for all primary school children in pilot areas across the country … [to] thoroughly test the case for universal free school meals, with the results available by autumn 2011”.
Most commentators agree that the NHS has improved under Labour, (at least enough for the Conservative party to want to claim themselves to be the rightful heirs of Bevan’s legacy) but their commitment to the preventive agenda is vague at best. Citing their current (and, in some quarters, heavily criticised) Change4Life social marketing campaign, and the smoking ban as evidence for the defence is fine, but where are the plans to make a healthy “future fair for all”?
The Liberal Democrats, with their eminently sensible and intelligent spokesperson Norman Lamb, possibly have the most tangible pledges for the nation’s health. The cynic might of course argue that they can afford to make such idealistic and resource-intensive promises, unlikely as they are to assume the reigns of power. Nonetheless, persuading a party to nail its colours to the mast of minimum alcohol pricing is no mean feat, particularly when their colleagues north of the border are more reticent to declare themselves. The Lib Dems also follow the Conservative’s lead in linking financial incentives to addressing inequalities, “linking payments to health boards (as they would rename Primary Care Trusts) and General Practitioners more directly to prevention measures”. Lamb has talked previously about what essentially amounts to a beefed-up Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF), paying GPs for achievements rather than measurements.
A curate’s egg for public health then from all the parties; whichever the colour of the incoming government, they still have work to do to clarify how they will improve the nation’s health, particularly in financially straitened times.