Keir Starmer vows to slash ‘bureaucratic nonsense’ in NHS

Starmer’s pledges are an echo of New Labour’s 1997 promises (PA)
Starmer’s pledges are an echo of New Labour’s 1997 promises (PA)

Sir Keir Starmer has vowed to get rid of “bureaucratic nonsense” with a plan to allow patients to bypass GPs and refer themselves to specialists.

The Labour leader has also formally backed his shadow health secretary Wes Streeting’s reforms, which would in effect nationalise GP services.

Labour has proposed making general practitioners salaried NHS employees, though the proposal has attracted criticism from some quarters of the medical profession.

Sir Keir, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, said: “If we don’t get real about reform, the NHS will die,” as he gave his backing to an overhaul of the current system in which GPs operate.

Sir Keir also said he wants Labour to be “bold and courageous” in reforming the NHS, but he denied any suggestion that he was moving towards privatisation of the health service.

“Free at the point of use is the founding principle of the NHS, and it is absolutely fundamental to me,” he told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. “It will always be free at the point of use – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the private sector as well.”

The Labour leader added: “It’s not the private sector that is the reform we are looking for. I want a preventative model; we are living longer, but it means the NHS has to change – intervention earlier, more technology … If we don’t reform the health service it will be in managed decline.”

The pledges are an echo of New Labour’s promises in 1997, when Tony Blair swept into power on the back of a manifesto that vowed to slash NHS waiting times and make the service more patient-focused.

Sir Keir used his article in the Telegraph to outline a series of reforms. He said Labour would look to improve efficiency for medical professionals by removing “mundane inconveniences and inefficiencies” that end up “resulting in a mind-boggling waste of time”.

Such improvements, he suggested, should include allowing patients with back problems to self-refer to physiotherapists – a policy that is currently being trialled by some trusts.

He also backed the idea of gradually “phasing in a new system” for GPs, turning family doctors into direct NHS employees. The current model sees self-employed GPs run their own practices under contracts awarded by the NHS. But the opposition leader said it was time to accept that the system needed overhauling, with the pressure on GP surgeries causing more people to attend hospitals instead.

Sir Keir suggested that young doctors are not keen on taking on the “burdens and liabilities” of the current system as older GPs leave the workforce.

“As GPs retire and those contracts are handed back, I want to phase in a new system that sees GPs fairly rewarded within the NHS, working much more closely with other parts of the system,” he said, adding: “Not everyone will want to hear this – but it is the direction we need to go in.”

The comments chime with arguments made by Mr Streeting in recent weeks on the need for NHS reform. Speaking to BBC Breakfast last week, the shadow cabinet member said that the “front door to the NHS is broken”. He said that “increasingly, people coming into general practice now prefer to be salaried”, and that by 2026 they will account for the majority.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir said the UK economy would not always have to be “smaller” as a result of Brexit. The Labour leader said he “did not agree with that at all” when he was asked whether the only way of improving the economy was to rejoin the EU single market.

Asked on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg whether the UK would “always be poorer” outside the single market, Sir Keir said: “No, so long as we improve upon the deal we’ve got, I don’t accept that.”

He added: “What people desperately want, going into the election, is to feel that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that things can get better.”

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