Reviving the NHS—classes from Labour 1997-2005

  1. Nigel Crisp, unbiased member of the Home of Lords, vice chair of the All-Occasion Parliamentary Group on World Well being

We’ve an incredible deal to be taught from the interval 1997 to 2005 when, because the King’s Fund has reported, the English NHS started the best enchancment in its historical past.1 I used to be straight concerned as a regional director, and from 2000 as NHS chief government and everlasting secretary of the Division of Well being. This brief article doesn’t cowl every part and is inevitably subjective. Others can have totally different views and I hope that this text will provoke debate, dialogue, and, most significantly, studying for the longer term.

On the finish of the 90s the NHS was in a nasty state, with lengthy ready lists, employees shortages, and public concern about nosocomial an infection and hospital cleanliness. Outcomes have been poor in contrast with related international locations, and lots of emergency departments have been in chaos. UK expenditure on well being was round 25% beneath that of comparator international locations. There have been some apparent similarities with as we speak’s state of affairs, though the present place is clearly much more critical and tough to resolve.

Between 1997 and 2005, main funding and really substantial enhancements have been made within the NHS. The emergency division goal of 98% of attendances being accomplished in underneath 4 hours was achieved in April 2005 (up from about 80%), surgical ready lists fell by greater than 40% to beneath 800 000 with a most wait of six months, and preventable mortality from cardiac causes and most cancers additionally fell.23 Public confidence within the NHS doubled between 1999 and 2009, and by 2003 this was mirrored in a considerable and persevering with fall within the variety of sufferers utilizing the personal sector for elective surgical procedure.4

This was a interval of huge progress, but additionally failings. Progress was too sluggish within the first three years. Vital developments occurred in coverage on high quality between 1997 and 2000 which had a profound long run impression, however noticed no total change of route or improved efficiency. The Nationwide Institute for Scientific Excellence (NICE) was established to help choice making; together with the start of a system of Nationwide Service Frameworks which set requirements in particular specialities; and the Fee for Well being Enchancment was created as the primary nationwide inspection and reporting system.

A brand new route was established in July 2000 with the publication of the NHS Plan.5 Planning was solely the beginning. It took a couple of yr for the NHS to be mobilised across the new route and for the persevering with decline of the service to be reversed. Substantial enhancements solely began appearing in 2002—in Labour’s second time period in authorities—by which era politicians and the general public have been very impatient. Enchancment accelerated very quick from there.

Momentum for change and buy-in for the plans was created very efficiently in 2000 and 2001 by means of three associated developments—the creation of the NHS Plan, the prime minister’s public dedication to extend spending to the European common, and the Treasury’s commissioning of the Wanless report on long run sustainability.6

The NHS Plan set out a imaginative and prescient for the longer term which was supported by coverage change and elevated funding. Crucially, it was developed by means of a collaborative course of involving individuals from all components of the NHS and a few of its companions, and the foreword was signed by representatives together with the British Medical Affiliation and the Royal School of Nursing. The Plan created sufficient goodwill to hold the federal government by means of some very tough choices within the subsequent two or three years, for instance about using the personal sector.7

Political momentum was important, however Labour, like all incoming governments, introduced some ideological baggage into authorities. It selected very early on to vary NHS consultants’ contracts to abolish their personal follow, which was unfinished enterprise from an earlier administration. This will likely have been a great factor in precept, however the timing was terrible coming so quickly after the publication of the NHS Plan, and meant that it misplaced some necessary allies and delayed progress. The problem was lastly resolved pragmatically after the 2001 election, with adjustments to the contract agreed which tightened management of personal follow however didn’t abolish it.

Progress was additionally hampered by political infighting between prime minister Tony Blair and well being secretary Alan Milburn on one aspect, and the chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, on the opposite. All sides had totally different visions for well being: one broadly consumerist and well being service oriented, the opposite extra involved with deeper causes and inhabitants well being.

Progress was very quick as soon as the brand new programs and approaches have been established and supported by a robust efficiency administration and accountability construction.

Throughout this era, stronger administration, targets, and improved accountability have been being launched throughout the entire of presidency. These enabled a transparent focus, which was important in making progress, however may trigger harm when utilized inappropriately. Some NHS targets have been very helpful. Early concentrate on bettering cardiac ready lists (which had 4% mortality) offered an early success. The emergency division goal, which was positioned on an entire hospital, not simply the division, meant processes all through the hospital needed to change and specialities needed to take extra duty for their very own sufferers from the second they arrived. It enabled a extra systematic method to affected person circulate by means of the hospital.

Vital advances additionally happened in administration, with the Modernisation Company as a automobile for figuring out and spreading greatest follow. Enhancements in emergency division efficiency got here from using systematic enchancment processes alongside centered efficiency administration. Different enhancements in medical follow got here from new analysis and growth methods, the Cochrane Collaborations, NHS Proof, and NICE.

There have been, nonetheless, too many targets. The NHS plan had greater than 200. Some have been badly thought out, ineffective, and even counterproductive. Few have been really systemic or strategic. All of them led to some gaming and a typical criticism of “hitting the goal whereas lacking the purpose.”

The main target was additionally an excessive amount of on amount and never sufficient on high quality. The NHS Plan, for instance, set a goal of recruiting 20 000 extra nurses, and virtually 70 000 extra have been recruited by the tip of 2005.8 Nonetheless, the emphasis was on numbers recruited and never on speciality, job position, or location, and even on the standard of the workforce. Political wants dominated: a political celebration that had been in energy since 1997 needed to present measurable enhancements. This led to missed alternatives and better prices when organisations expanded too quick in response to political pressures.

Underlying these points was the persevering with drawback of getting the appropriate steadiness between nationwide and native management and priorities. This led to far too many reorganisations and an everyday tightening of central management when there have been issues, and leisure when issues improved. This was demoralising and complicated.

A number of very efficient coverage adjustments happened. Two of essentially the most controversial have been the introduction of affected person selection over the placement of their remedy, and use of the personal sector. Others, such because the introduction of drop-in centres and minor damage models, have been uncontroversial, whereas the introduction of prescribing by nurses and different professionals started controversially however, due to efficient implementation, was quickly utterly accepted.

Enhancements in surgical ready instances resulted partly from spreading good follow and tight administration, but additionally initially from elevated affected person selection and the introduction of remedy centres operated by the unbiased sector. Apparently, in each circumstances the best impression resulted not from sufferers exercising selection (only a few did), or the small numbers being handled in these centres, however from NHS models responding to the competitors and dashing up admissions. The specter of competitors was very efficient. Right here, as elsewhere, the coverage and politics have been useful, however their impression shouldn’t be overstated. The quickest enhancements got here in properly run hospitals and surgical procedures the place employees shared dedication to progress and their working relationships have been good. Disruption of those relationships was one purpose why frequent reorganisations have been so harmful.

These adjustments have been a part of an method to the NHS impressed by the personal sector which created a quasi-market and led to some reorganisations. This undoubtedly introduced some advantages. Professionals want to know prices of therapies. Selection and competitors can break up cosy cartels and assist shift energy to the affected person. Nonetheless, this financial centred method didn’t deal adequately with the human points. There’s scope for the managed involvement of the personal sector in NHS supply, as now, but it surely must be on the NHS’s phrases, and financial initiatives should be a part of a wider set of insurance policies that tackle the realities of sufferers’ and professionals’ lives.

Two underlying issues persist. Firstly, a lot of healthcare must be long run and relational, not transactional and episodic, whether it is to achieve success. Chopping and altering suppliers in lots of circumstances damages care. Secondly, the emphasis on financial incentives quite than on human motivation doesn’t work in a service whose professionals will not be motivated by cash (though they are often demotivated by lack of it, as we will see from this yr’s industrial motion), however by achievement, respect, and vocation.

The event of administration, systematic enchancment processes, and improved accountability have been a counterbalance to the ability of the professions that had dominated the NHS, and have been in decline. This decline was due partly to main scandals being revealed: about cardiac surgical procedure in Bristol, the murders of his sufferers by Harold Shipman, and the unauthorised retention of kids’s organs at Alder Hey. These adjustments, away from “a membership tradition” in some components of the professions, have been essential, however weren’t balanced by the event of a transparent imaginative and prescient of professionalism for the longer term. Wanting forward, these human points should be prioritised if the NHS is to thrive.

There was a failure to pivot away from well being providers in direction of well being and care. The service enhancements meant we knew by 2004 that we had a possibility to maneuver upstream into growing neighborhood providers (together with social care), selling well being, and stopping illness. Numerous coverage papers have been printed, however no political will drove this ahead for quite a lot of causes, together with the peerlessly rational want not to surrender on progress with providers. The clever findings of the Wanless overview, specifically that sustainability requires the complete engagement of the inhabitants, have been ignored. The chance that had been created was misplaced.

All of us have purpose to remorse this failure to vary route. The coalition authorities of 2010-2015 launched austerity and destroyed a number of the social cloth in our communities which, amongst different issues, helped maintain individuals wholesome. This has in the long run elevated sick well being and, along with the pandemic, broken providers.

My private involvement within the NHS led to 2006, not lengthy after a brand new political workforce was appointed. We had devolved too quick with out enough central controls and bumped into monetary issues. I resigned and the brand new chief government imposed tighter central management. Progress on well being providers resumed, however there was no pivot to well being.

An unlimited quantity has modified in 20 years, together with public expectations and the broader social context, and I wouldn’t wish to overplay the similarities between then and now. Nonetheless, the essential drawback of sustainability stays. Individuals who suggest new funding or organisational preparations as options to as we speak’s issues make a elementary class mistake. This isn’t a monetary or organisational problem however a well being one. This implies we want a well being primarily based resolution that may then be adopted by means of with monetary, organisational, and different help.

I might draw out 4 key classes:

Firstly, no matter authorities is in energy after the following election ought to set up a brand new long run well being plan that units out a imaginative and prescient for the longer term that goes far past the well being and care programs and backs it with coverage change and monetary help. Crucially, it ought to be developed by means of a collaborative course of involving individuals from all components of the well being and care programs in addition to wider society, which does a lot to find out our well being and wellbeing. This can present each the route and the momentum wanted for implementation.

Secondly, the lengthy anticipated shift of care from hospitals to the neighborhood and houses must be deliberate for, funded, and accelerated. This may be supported by advances in science, expertise, and information, which can decide a lot of the framing and the language of well being, form how well being staff take into consideration well being issues and attainable options, and the way they act.

Thirdly, we have to pivot to well being much more than earlier than. The pandemic has proven us all—even when we haven’t studied the analysis on the social determinants—that housing, the setting, communities, employment, poverty, and schooling profoundly have an effect on our well being, wellbeing, and life probabilities. We’d like well being coverage that tackles all this with new emphasis on creating well being (offering the situations for individuals to be wholesome), stopping ailments, and defending the well being of the inhabitants alongside glorious well being and care providers.9

Lastly, we want a brand new emphasis on individuals. Not simply on numbers, but additionally on individuals’s motivations, their expertise as sufferers and professionals, the altering roles we will anticipate, and the event {of professional} schooling.10 In the end, after all, it was well being and care staff who achieved the NHS’s successes.

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  • Competing pursuits: none declared.

  • Provenance and peer overview: commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.


  1. Blyth N, Ross S. Methods to cut back ready instances for elective care. The Kings Fund. December 2022.

  2. Crisp N. 24 hours to avoid wasting The NHS—the Chief Government’s account of reform 2000-2006. 2011