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Exclusive poll: Public fear for the future of free healthcare

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Voters fear the principle of free healthcare is in danger and that the NHS is threatened by the private sector, an exclusive HSJ/FTI Consulting poll has found.

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The survey, conducted jointly with FTI Consulting, also reveals that the NHS retains extremely high levels of support among the general population.

A huge majority would approve of a cash injection into the service as the economy improves.

Our research polled a representative sample of 2,000 voters from across England in June.

When asked to score out of 100 how much they agreed with the assertion “free care is under threat”, one in four said 100 per cent. The average score was 70 per cent, despite no major political party actually offering a policy to end the principle of healthcare free at the point of use.

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This survey also revealed widespread concern about the role of the private sector. An average score of 65 per cent was recorded in response to the statement: “The NHS is under threat from private healthcare companies”.

Despite this perceived threat from private firms, half of respondents agreed it did not matter whether the NHS was privately or publicly managed as long as the service remained free to users. Further findings underlined the public’s continued support for the NHS, with 97 per cent of voters believing it was worth fighting for and 92 per cent that it was integral to maintaining social equality.

LGC’s sister title Health Service Journal and FTI Consulting will carry out the survey quarterly in the run up to the May 2015 election. The survey strongly indicated the NHS was likely to be an important influence of the electorate’s choice of party at the next general election.

Several indicators showed Labour with a consistent lead over the Conservatives on the NHS. Voters gave Ed Miliband’s party a 10 percentage point lead over the Conservatives on the question of which party best understands the NHS and which party provides the best care, but this narrowed to three points on the issue of efficiency in the health service.

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Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats scored consistently worse than the Conservatives and UK Independence Party.

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Only 7 per cent of voters believe the Liberal Democrats would provide the best healthcare, compared with 10 per cent for UKIP.

While 44 per cent of voters believe the Conservative party was the most likely to “threaten the existence of free healthcare”, Labour came second with 23 per cent, followed by UKIP and the Liberal Democrats.

The survey found extremely strong support for increased funding for the NHS. Almost 90 per cent of voters agreed spending should rise as the economy improves, it indicates.

The HSJ/FTI Consulting poll also offers insights into what voters want from their NHS services.

Accident and emergency was named as the most consistent area of concern for the general public. 

Seventy-four per cent of voters would be “very concerned” at a national announcement relating to A&E closures - much higher than levels of concern over new charges for services, restrictions of access to drugs or reductions in eligibility.

Big Differences in attitude between voters under 30 and those over 55

The HSJ/FTI Consulting survey found:

  • Young voters were much more enthusiastic about the idea of using technology rather than travelling for services, and 79 per cent wanted to use smartphones to monitor their health, compared with 30 per cent of older people.
  • Although most young people strongly believed the NHS was worth fighting for, the majority was much greater among people over 55.
  • Young adults were more likely to think people with private insurance should not have to subsidise those that do not, and were more open to private management of healthcare.
  • But despite the apparently lower levels of support for the basic principles of the NHS, adults under 30 said they were more likely to change their vote based on NHS policy.
  • Older voters were significantly more likely to feel the NHS was “caring”, “efficient” “transparent” and “reliable”.

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A&E was also the service to which respondents were least prepared to travel.

However, voters were convinced of the case for moving care out of hospitals into the community.

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Most people believe such a move would lead to better care and a more efficient service, the survey indicates.

There were also high levels of concern over booking appointments and waiting times.

Bill Morgan, partner at Incisive Health and a former special adviser to Andrew Lansley when he was health secretary, told HSJ that support for the NHS was “incredibly stable”, despite “short term fluctuations” caused by care scandals such as Mid Staffordshire.

He said fears over free care at the point of use were persistent but “very misplaced”. “If you asked whether the NHS is under threat at any point over the last 50 years you would probably get a similar result.

“You’ll hear many people say that the NHS is great but in the future we’ll have to start charging for it. [But] the vast majority of people in government think it is most efficiently funded publicly, through general taxation.”

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