Public support for the Government's handling of the NHS in England plummeted to its lowest level in two decades, which should ring alarm bells in Downing Street, health experts have warned. Fewer than 1 in 10 people in England (8%) agreed that the UK Government has the right policies for the health service, a new poll suggested.
The previous low was 22% in 2006, while support peaked at 37% in 2008 and 2009.
The survey, from Ipsos and the Health Foundation, suggested that only 10% of people across the UK as a whole feel their government has the right plans for the NHS. More people in Scotland and Wales felt their devolved governments have the right policies, with 28% and 19% positive responses, respectively..
The Health Foundation said that, while a change in survey methodology meant comparisons with data before 2021 were only indicative, the findings were consistent with trends seen elsewhere and illustrated the escalation of concerns among the public.
Results Should be 'Ringing Alarm Bells in Number 10'
Senior policy fellow Tim Gardner said the public expected to see more action from Government and wanted to see a credible plan for recovering and improving the health service.
"These findings should be ringing alarm bells in Number 10. This is a very low level of public confidence in the Government's handling of the health service and it's quite clear that people are very concerned at the current state of the health service," he said. "But it’s equally clear that, despite all of the frustrations, by and large, people are not blaming the service, its staff, or the model of the NHS for what's going on."
The survey suggests only a third of people across the UK (33%) agree the NHS is providing a good service nationally, down from more than 1 in 4 (43%) in the previous poll in May 2022.
There is little evidence of people believing the NHS will improve in the short term, with 62% of respondents saying they think the standard of NHS care will fall over the next 12 months – up from 39% who thought this in May 2022.
Public's Commitment to the NHS Still Strong
The Health Foundation said that, despite these concerns, the public's commitment to the founding principles of the NHS is as strong as ever, with 90% of respondents believing the NHS should be free at the point of delivery, 89% that the NHS should provide a comprehensive service available to everyone, and 84% that the NHS should be funded primarily through taxation.
"Despite the public being very clearly deeply negative about the current state of the health service and how it is performing, support for the founding principles for the NHS is really rock solid," said Mr Gardner. "There are substantial majorities of the public who think those three core founding principles from 1948 should continue to apply today.
"This is a belief shared right across society, regardless of age, political affiliations, or anything else."
The poll suggests that addressing the pressure on or workload of staff (40%) and increasing the number of staff (39%) are the public's top two priorities for the NHS. This is followed by improving waiting times for routine services such as diagnostic tests or operations (35%), while waiting times in A&E have moved up as a priority from 25% in May 2022 to 31%.
More than 8 in 10 respondents (82%) said more funding was needed with support found across all age groups, UK nations, and the political spectrum – at 63% among Conservative voters and 94% of Labour voters.
The survey of 2063 UK adults was carried out in November, before the intense winter pressures set in and the first NHS strikes took place, though some of the ballot results had already been announced. When asked if the winter crises could lead to public opinion falling even further, Mr Gardner told reporters: "I don’t know. It is entirely possible it has fallen further."
Results Shows 'NHS is Being Let Down by Government Inaction'
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the Government must listen to the findings and "do all it can" to reach a compromise with the unions to halt ongoing strike actions.
He added: "This polling shows the NHS is being let down by Government inaction, which is contributing to reduced public confidence, while support for the founding principles of the NHS remains strong.
"NHS leaders and staff are doing all they can to recover services and make inroads into the waiting lists, but the Government must play its part in restoring public perceptions of the NHS and social care, including levelling with the public about the care they will receive as the health service and the nation experience the effects of the on-going wave of strike action."
Labour's Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, said: "It’s no surprise the public have lost confidence in the Conservatives' management of the NHS – they have delivered the longest waiting times in history.
"The Tories should admit they don't know what they're doing and steal Labour’s plan to double medical school places and train 10,000 new nurses a year, paid for by abolishing non-doms."
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "We are committed to ensuring that the NHS is here for people to give them the healthcare they need, when they need it.
"That’s why we’re building a sustainable NHS with patients at its centre – backed by up to £14.1 billion for health and social care over the next 2 years, on top of record funding.
"Our urgent and emergency care recovery plan seeks to deliver the Prime Minister's priority to cut waiting lists, whilst reducing pressure on hospitals by scaling up community teams, expanding virtual wards, and getting 800 new ambulances on the road – on top of £750 million to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds this winter.
"At the same time, we are continuing to grow the NHS workforce – there are record numbers of doctors and nurses working in the NHS and we will publish a comprehensive workforce plan to help recruit and retain more NHS staff."
This article contains information from PA Media