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Ed Miliband: ‘Ending the 48-hour pledge was a really bad mistake’

It was like a scene from The Thick of It. Dozens of London politicos milling around a closed hospital cafe, wondering how they ended up in a small town in the West Midlands.

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Labour’s 10-year plan for the NHS will be unveiled the next day in London, but in true Malcolm Tucker-style, Pulse is ensconced at the George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton with only a three-page summary of the document, handed out 15 minutes before the briefing starts.

But Labour’s health spokesperson Andy Burnham and the big draw of the day, leader Ed Miliband, greet us as if we were long-lost friends.

They are perched uncomfortably next to each other on a sofa, but Mr Miliband is clearly in charge – prompting his shadow minister to cover all aspects of their 10-year NHS plan released 100 days before the general election.

‘As Pulse showed, you’re seeing one in five patients waiting longer than two weeks’

‘I think what people most want from the health service is the sense of a plan, a sense of the vision of the future,’ he says. ‘And I think as well as all the other failings of this Government, they’ve provided no vision of the future, what the NHS looks like.’

It is not surprising that he is keen to speak with us, after all the NHS is a key plank of Labour’s election strategy and he needs GPs onside to deliver one of his major pledges  – a guarantee of a GP appointment within 48 hours.

‘I understand the anxiety there is about any changes that happen but I think it’s been pretty much shown by experience that the Government’s decision to get rid of the 48-hour standard was a really bad mistake,’ says Mr Miliband.

But is he not worried that it will bring back the daily lockdown in the morning as patients scramble for appointments? Mr Miliband references a Pulse survey that showed long waiting times for GP appointments published last year and the 8,000 more GPs he plans to fund if he is in power from May.

He says: ‘The problem is it meant there’s no proper backstop for when people get seen and as a result, as Pulse showed, you’re seeing one in five patients waiting longer than two weeks. You just need to look at the attendances at A&E – the rise in attendances – to see the problem.’

‘We said two things about this – one was to recruit more GPs and it’s important to make sure that’s deliverable and secondly get rid of some of the frankly ridiculous bureaucracy and competition regulation which is costing money, and saving that money applying it back into GP services.’

As well as removing competition rules, Labour also plans more radical change to the NHS to promote much greater integration. The 10-year plan includes plans to create a ‘year-of-care’ tariff for those with complex needs, such as frail older people, which will cover all of a person’s care costs over a year.

Mr Burnham explains that this will mean a ‘home to hospital’ service  with hospitals – and perhaps GP practices – being given the opportunity to extend into primary care, employ GPs and provide more social support.

He explains: ‘An organisation like [the George Eliot Hospital] wants to grow into the community, wants to become an integrated care organisation so that’s the future that we’ve got to offer and that’s what the plan will allow.’

But will GPs want to work for large ICOs as salaried employees? Mr Burnham explains: ‘It’s about saying that if younger GPs  in the early part of their career want to work for an integrated care organisation then that is something that I think we would encourage.

‘I’ve met a group of GP trainees in Manchester recently who said: “We don’t want to become partners in a practice straight away, we want to work differently. We’d like a more salaried position to begin with and maybe go into partnership later on in our career”.

‘We understand that general practice is under incredible pressure at the moment. We know morale is very very low. We will work at this with the profession. But this is about, a truly preventative NHS needs the best possible primary care and the commitment we’re making is part of that.’

And the morale of people working in the NHS is clearly important to Mr Miliband. He announces that there will be a new ‘staff champion’ in the NHS that will feed back on how the workforce is feeling – although it is unclear if this person will represent GPs.

‘The NHS is facing a perilous moment’

He adds: ‘I met some folk who work here earlier on just on the corridor they just happened to be there – they basically maintain the machines in the hospital and they do repair work and so on and they were incredibly proud to be working in the NHS and I said to them: ‘What do you think people are feeling about the NHS at the moment?’ and two of them said together: “Fearful.”

‘I think the reason for that is because people feel like the NHS is facing a perilous moment and there needs to be a sense of plan for its future and I think that’s what we’re providing tomorrow.’