Labour has insisted it would “never consider” a £10 monthly membership charge for the NHS after one of its former ministers claimed the measure was necessary to ensure the health service survives five more years of austerity.
In a report he co-authored for the pro-market thinktank Reform, Lord Warner, who served as a health minister in Tony Blair’s government, called for the fee to be introduced along with higher so-called ‘sin taxes’ on alcohol, tobacco, sugary foods and gambling, as well as ‘hotel charges’ for visitors staying overnight in hospitals.
He argued that it was “now irresponsible to pretend to the public that current forms of taxation alone will be sufficient to provide a good quality health and care system”, and that the NHS would face a £30bn-a-year gap by 2020. The proposed monthly charge would be collected with council tax and entitle each member of working age to an annual health ‘MOT’.
Further funds for health and social care could be raised by expanding the number of people liable for inheritance tax so that the cost was borne by older people rather than young income taxpayers, Warner suggested. Meanwhile, funding from general taxation would rise only in line with inflation.
But the proposal won little immediate political support. Shadow health minister Jamie Reed rejected the idea, saying it was “not something Labour would ever consider”. “We believe in an NHS free at the point of use, and a Labour government will repeal David Cameron’s NHS changes that put private profit before patient care,” he said.
A Department of Health spokesman, quoted by the Guardian, said the government was also against the introduction of membership fees, but added: “We know that with an ageing population there’s more pressure on the NHS, which is why we need changes to services that focus far more on health prevention out of hospitals.”
Meanwhile, the British Medication Association said Lord Warner’s conclusion that “the NHS is being driven into a worsening funding crisis” would “ring true with all who work in it”.
But the chairman of the BMA’s representative body, Dr Ian Wilson, went on: “Resolving under-funding should not be at the expense of the most vulnerable in society nor at the fundamental principle that the NHS needs to be free at the point of use, and the BMA firmly believes that charging for patients is not the solution.
“The government has so far failed to provide a fair and sustainable solution to the funding crisis, with its efforts instead of focusing on attempting to balance the books on the back of frontline staff through year-on-year pay freezes.”
There was also opposition from the trade union Unite. Its head of health, Rachael Maskell, said: “The Reform report needs to be kicked out completely. If such a proposal were ever adopted, it would be the death knell for the NHS. It would be the end of a health service free at the point of delivery for all those in need.
“It would be very discriminatory against the poor who would struggle to pay such a charge. It would create a two-tier NHS in favour of the well-off. It would fundamentally undermine the principles and ethos of the NHS.”