Comment

Therese Coffey has made a good start. But there is a long way to go

The NHS failings should now encourage a debate about its future that goes beyond a bidding war for ever increasing funding

Credit: Kirsty O'Connor/PA

For the best part of four decades the Conservatives have sought to take ownership of the health issue away from Labour, which since its foundation in 1948, has claimed proprietorial rights and operated an effective veto over fundamental change. As Lord Frost says on these pages, the NHS failings should now encourage a debate about its future that goes beyond a bidding war for ever increasing funding. Let us hope so. But the reforms that are needed will take years, whereas the crisis is with us now.

Thérèse Coffey, the new Health Secretary, told MPs yesterday that she was determined to get to grips with some immediate problems such as the difficulty of getting a GP appointment and the appalling ambulance response times. But it is easier to identify where the shortcomings lie and a lot harder to make the necessary changes. Ms Coffey called her approach a Plan for Patients, and that is the right way of looking at this. Too often the focus of policy has been on what it means to staff rather than to the people they treat.

The minister wants to address the frustrations many feel trying to get GP appointments. She says these must be available within two weeks, but most people want them more quickly than that. Community pharmacies are to be given wider powers to prescribe medicines, which should help, but family doctors also need to open up their surgeries fully once more and work weekends.

Ideas for an auxiliary ambulance service, changes to pension rules to encourage retired clinicians back into service, targeted social care packages to free up hospital beds and a bigger role for the private sector are all welcome. It is a good start but there is a long way to go and little time to get it right before the creaking edifice collapses.