Independent inquiry ‘only way’ to guarantee agreement on future NHS funding as May says 55,000 cancelled appointments are ‘part of the plan’

Theresa May is being urged to set up a Royal Commission to save the crisis-hit NHS – after suggesting 55,000 cancelled operations was “part of the plan” for winter.

The proposal from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), which is backed by the Liberal Democrats, says an independent inquiry on the future of the NHS would take the question of how much funding the health service needs, out of the hands of political parties.

Lord Saatchi, one of the authors of the CPS proposal said a long-term funding plan is the only way to “cut the Gordian knot”, which he said ties badly needed cash to short-term, political objectives.

“The wonderful dream of the NHS is turning into a recurring winter nightmare – and leaving it alone is a recipe for long-term catastrophe,” he added.

While slower than a public inquiry, a Royal Commission can subpoena documents and compel health service bosses and ministers to give evidence under oath.

It should also be tasked to submit all of its proposals “fully costed” so they can be usefully implemented by any future Government, the CPS says.

“A Royal Commission must rise above the political fray and, once established, must steadfastly defend its independence,” the CPS report says.

“Its mandate should not be to produce piecemeal, tactical, individual fixes, but a blueprint to keep the NHS healthy for decades to come perhaps even for another 70 years.”

“Given the current political situation, a Royal Commission appears the only way of getting any kind of consensus behind significant reform to the NHS.”

The Liberal Democrats have previously called for a cross-party solution to NHS funding.

Norman Lamb, a former health minister in the Coalition government, told The Independent: “Tribal politics has failed to provide a solution to the existential challenges facing the NHS and social care.

“The winter crisis of the past few weeks is unfortunate proof that the current situation is unsustainable, and these pressures will only get worse as we contend with an ageing population and rising demand for care and treatment.”

But while critics agree more cross-party collaboration is needed, they point out the NHS is in crisis now.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes and chair of the House of Commons health committee, coordinated a letter signed by 90 backbench MPs calling for political bravery and cross-party solutions for how the NHS can cope with more retirees, living longer.

She told The Independent: “A Royal Commission would take too long and we don’t have the luxury of time.”

The CPS proposal says general taxation will not be enough to fund the growing pressures of an ageing population and increasing public demand.

It says the health service must investigate “alternative, additional sources of revenue for the NHS”.

Even Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has recognised the need to change the way the NHS is funded, asking for it to have spending set on a 10-year timeframe.

This is because of a growing view that necessary modernising reforms in the health service will not fit neatly into one parliamentary cycle, and leave it vulnerable to changing priorities or seasonal spikes in pressure, like the current winter crisis.

This winter the NHS received an eleventh hour £335m to keep services afloat, announced in the autumn budget just a month before the health service’s busiest period.

Despite the funding injection, hospital bosses were advised this week to postpone all non-urgent care, including tens of thousands of operations, until the end of January to redirect funding to urgent and emergency care.

In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, Prime Minister Theresa May said that this decision was “all part of the plan”.

After being asked if she could remember a worse winter crisis, the Mrs May said: “The NHS has actually been better prepared for this winter pressures than it has been before.

“You mentioned operations being postponed, that was part of the plan.

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