NHS productivity focus of Spring Budget 2024

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt discussed his ‘NHS productivity plan’ in the Spring Budget, but the ongoing issue of waiting lists was not addressed as a priority

Houses of parliament

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt focused on NHS productivity during his Spring Budget speech today (6 March).

The Chancellor said that investment in modernising NHS IT systems would unlock £35 billion in productivity savings up to 2030.

Full investment would be made in an ‘NHS productivity plan,’ including improvements to the NHS app, the increased use of artificial intelligence to handle paperwork, and improvements to MRI scanners, Hunt said.

It will also lead to universal electronic patient records across all NHS trusts by 2026, “ending reliance on outdated physical paper records across the system and ensuring patients can easily access records across all NHS systems.”

Hunt claimed that the investment would create “the largest digitally integrated health service in the world.”

It is predicted that 13 million hours are currently wasted every year because of outdated IT systems.

The productivity plan will be backed by £3.4 billion of funding. It is part of the wider Public Sector Productivity Programme.

The plan will double amount that the NHS is investing in digital transformation in three years, Hunt said.

An external expert advisory panel will also be established to ensure the programme can deliver its goals, including making the best use of emerging technologies.

While productivity was the focus, Hunt did not mention NHS waiting lists during his speech to Parliament.

The Spring Budget 2024 document reveals that an additional £2.5 billion of day-to-day funding for the NHS in England in 2024–25 will be allocated, “protecting funding levels in real terms and supporting the NHS to continue to improve performance and reduce waiting times.”

This “will protect levels of funding for the NHS in England in real terms,” the published document says.

The AOP’s clinical and professional director, Dr Peter Hampson, said: “Health is one of the great levellers, which people only realise the importance of when they need to access care. The fact that the Chancellor doesn’t seem to want to prioritise tackling waiting lists is a shame.”

Responding in Parliament after Hunt’s speech, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer noted that NHS waiting lists currently stand at 1.8 million.

Hunt’s plan only offered “the same old formula,” he said, adding that “Britain deserves better.”

In January, Labour Party Shadow Health Minister, Karin Smyth, said that the party would work with optometrists in order to tackle the backlog in outpatient appointments and reduce the instances of patients having to seek private treatment to avoid going blind.

Hampson said: “Optometry is in a strong position to take on work from ophthalmology, which is something that Labour has spoken in favour of. It is a shame that the Government has not also acknowledged this.”

The NHS Confederation welcomed the commitment to IT funding, but emphasised that it would have liked to see more commitment to the NHS overall.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “Given the Chancellor’s health background, NHS leaders had hoped to see more recognition for the situation they are up against with full funding of the workforce plan and greater investment in primary and community care so that they can carry out the important prevention work that will mean so much to the NHS in years to come.”

Taylor added: “In previous years unrealistically tight revenue settlements like this have been followed by in-year emergency top ups that are overly prescriptive and inefficient, this is not the way to plan for the future or improve productivity. NHS leaders hoped that the Chancellor would have stopped this from happening today.”

The Spring Budget also included the widely expected promise to cut National Insurance by 2p, as well as an increase to the VAT registration threshold for small businesses from £85,000 to £90,000 from April 2024.

The increase to the VAT registration threshold is the first increase in seven years.