The UK’s political parties held their annual Party Conferences in September and October this year. They provided an opportunity to promote their policies and outline their respective political agendas ahead of the upcoming general election.
Did the Parties address NHS workforce challenges during the conferences?
In his Conservative Party Conference speech on 3 October 2023, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay MP, addressed NHS workforce challenges by announcing a new Long-Term Workforce Plan. He declared this would be the largest expansion of medical staff training in the history of the NHS and over the next 15 years a Conservative Government would prioritise the recruitment and training of all healthcare staff, including doctors, nurses and paramedics. He also announced that the Government will create new medical school places with additional places at the universities of Worcester, Chester, Brunel, Central Lancashire and Edge Hill. Alongside this, the Government will pilot a new scheme for medical degree apprenticeships to create new routes for young people to become doctors. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak MP, reiterated the importance of the new Long-Term Workforce Plan during his closing speech at the conference on 4 October 2023.
Similarly, during his speech at the Labour Party Conference, the Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting MP, also placed considerable emphasis on fighting the current workforce challenges in the NHS and clearing the backlog of care. He vowed Labour would provide £1.1 billion to help the NHS beat the backlog by providing 2 million more medical appointments each year and increasing pay for staff. He announced that this would be funded by abolishing the non-dom tax status in the UK. The Shadow Health Secretary also detailed how Labour would reform the NHS as a whole, stating that there is no point pouring ‘ever-increasing amounts of money into a system that isn’t working’. He outlined three pillars that would be the foundation of Labour’s NHS reform: hospital to community, analogue to digital, and sickness to prevention. He announced that primary care would be at the heart of Labour’s health service and promised to train thousands more GPs as well as ensure the return of the family doctor.
The topic of NHS workforce challenges also featured at the Liberal Democrats Party Conference this year. The Deputy Leader and Health and Social Care Spokesperson, Daisy Cooper MP, highlighted the severe impact of last year’s winter on the NHS and promised the Liberal Democrats would put thousands more GPs back into communities and guarantee a seven-day turnaround for appointments.
Was social care discussed at the Party Conferences?
The ongoing challenges facing the social care system have been receiving increased attention recently. Following the Spring Budget earlier this year, organisations and charities within social care have been calling the Government out for neglecting meaningful reform and not addressing the recruitment and retention issues that are impacting the sector.
The Health and Social Care Secretary did not place much emphasis on social care during his speech but did reference the Conservative’s ‘biggest ever increase in social care funding with record uplift’ following the Autumn Statement in 2022.
In comparison, social care featured prominently in the Shadow Health Secretary’s speech at the Labour Party Conference as he declared that there is ‘no solution to the crisis in the NHS that doesn’t include a plan for social care’. He announced that he and the Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Angela Rayner MP, will deliver the first-ever Fair Pay Agreement for care professionals as part of Labour’s ten-year plan for a National Care Service.
Comparably, the Liberal Democrats Leader, Ed Davey MP, also addressed the challenges related to social care in his keynote speech at the Party Conference. He declared that social care is inextricably linked to the crisis in the NHS and that there will be no way to overhaul the current challenges without fixing social care. He described investing in care as a ‘low-tech, affordable way’ to save the NHS.
Was mental health discussed at the Party Conferences?
Mental health figured prominently at the Liberal Democrats Party Conference. The Health and Social Care Spokesperson centred her speech around improving mental health for the nation and criticised the Conservative Government for allowing mental health to drop off the political radar. She described the nation’s deteriorating mental health as one of the biggest challenges we are facing. She outlined the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to a national mental health service by tackling long waiting times and poor access to services, particularly for children. She promised the Liberal Democrats would introduce community mental health hubs across the nation, employ qualified mental health practitioners in every school, and expand young people’s mental health services up to the age of 25.
She pledged that the Liberal Democrats would prioritise mental health equal to physical health by introducing routine mental health MOTs at key points in people’s lives when mental health could be at risk to ensure people can access the support they need.
The Shadow Health Secretary also addressed challenges concerning mental health and promised that Labour would keep mental health on the agenda by ensuring mental health hubs in every school and community.
The Health and Social Care Secretary did not discuss mental health in his speech at the Conservative Party Conference.
Was the role of technology and artificial intelligence in healthcare discussed at the Party Conferences?
The use of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare has been at the forefront of political discussion recently following a series of announcements from the Government revealing new funds to transform the delivery of healthcare with emerging technologies. 
Both Conservative and Labour health spokespeople celebrated the promise of new technology for healthcare in their speeches. The Health and Social Care Secretary focussed on the future of AI and its transformative power to speed up critical diagnoses for patients which can result in faster treatment. He announced a new £30 million fund to speed up the adoption path of this new technology into the NHS.
The Shadow Health Secretary also placed considerable emphasis on technology during his speech to the Labour Party Conference by praising the benefits of speedier diagnoses from AI. He announced Labour’s ‘Fit for the Future Fund’ which aims to double the number of scanners in the NHS so patients can receive quicker diagnoses and treatment. The Labour Party Leader, Keir Starmer MP, also reiterated this in his speech by stating that technology must overhaul every health service delivery aspect to increase efficiency.
In comparison, the benefits of technology in healthcare did not feature as prominently at the Liberal Democrats Party Conference this year. Their Party Leader, Ed Davey MP, referred to the need for greater investment in the latest technology from MRI scanners and radiotherapy machines but the Health and Social Care Spokesperson did not mention technology during her conference speech.
What other healthcare challenges were addressed at the Party Conferences?
The Shadow Health Secretary highlighted the need to improve the health system for future generations. He declared Labour’s ambition to make children today the ‘healthiest generation that ever lived’ by introducing measures such as banning junk food adverts targeted at children, clamping down on the vaping industry, and ensuring breakfast clubs provide every primary school pupil with a healthy and nutritious start to the day. He also highlighted the immediate crisis in NHS dentistry during his speech and promised to provide an additional 700,000 new appointments each year.
The Liberal Democrats also made promises to fix the ‘broken system’ that has driven dentists to give up on NHS work. 
In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, the Health and Social Care Secretary announced that the Government will consult on proposed updates to the NHS constitution to ensure the privacy, dignity, and safety of all patients is recognised. He also stated the importance of different biological sex in healthcare and different biological needs in protecting the rights of women in healthcare.
The UK’s main political parties all highlighted the importance of healthcare as a central focus of their respective agendas. Both the Conservative and Labour Party Conferences focussed on tackling NHS workforce challenges, capitalising on the benefits of emerging technologies, and the need for a prevention agenda rather than a ‘sickness service’. While the Liberal Democrats also addressed the urgent need to reform social care, this year’s Party Conference made clear their priority of addressing mental health challenges in the UK.
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 Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, Department of Health and Social Care, The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP, The Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP, and The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, ‘New £100 million fund to capitalise on AI’s game-changing potential in life sciences and healthcare’, 29 October 2023, link