This week, Healthwatch England has written to the Health Secretary warning that Healthwatch organisations are unable to do their jobs properly due to funding cuts. It has been reported that there has been an 18% decline in the number of applications to study nursing this year, and Labour has requested that parliamentary time be allocated to debate Accountable Care Organisations (ACOs). The UK has reached an agreement to progress to the next stage of Brexit negotiations, and the Chancellor has confirmed the date of the Spring Statement.

Healthwatch warns Health Secretary over funding cuts

The chair of Healthwatch has written to the Health Secretary calling for “the department to step up its work with Healthwatch England and others in order to maintain an effective Healthwatch network”, after warnings that many organisations have had their budgets cut. The 152 Healthwatch groups across England are funded by local authorities, which have had to pass on funding reductions as a result of their own budgetary constraints. Healthwatch England estimates that funding was cut by £27.4 million, or 6.9%, in 2017/18, and some groups have experienced cuts of up to 17%.

Jane Mordue, the author of the letter to the Government, warned that these cuts are leaving Healthwatch organisations “unable to fulfil their statutory obligations”, as they often cover large geographical areas and can be staffed by as few as two people. The reductions have also had “n unwelcome impact on the ability of local Healthwatch to participate effectively in strategic discussions including work relating to sustainability and transformation partnerships and accountable care systems/organisations”.

18% decline in applications to study nursing

The Royal College of Nursing has expressed concerns around a decline in the number of people applying to study nursing, with an 18% decline recorded in 2017. While the RCN makes clear that this has only translated into a 0.9% decrease in the number of students being accepted onto nursing courses across the UK, the RCN’s Associate Director of Policy and Public Affairs, Lara Carmona, said that “These figures show the future supply of nurses remains in peril – we have not seen the increase we need across the UK, despite government promises.” Carmona also pointed to the Government’s policy to remove student bursaries for nurses to allow numbers to increase by 10,000 and fund a 25% increase in training places, which has not materialised.

The RCN has also expressed concerns this week about the Government’s indication that pay rises for nurses will be linked to improved productivity, at the same time that the Health Secretary has commenced pay negotiations for 2018/19. The RCN emphasised when the Government previously suggested this approach, stating that “Nurses should not be expected in effect to fund their own pay rise. A fair pay rise is vital not just for nursing staff, but for patients and the NHS as a whole.”

Labour calls for parliamentary debate on ACOs

Labour has tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling for the Government to grant parliamentary time to debate the introduction of Accountable Care Organisations (ACOs), which are intended to be the next step on from STPs and Accountable Care Systems (ACSs). The EDM – a type of parliamentary motion stating an opinion of the members supporting it, but which does not necessitate a government response – references a consultation which the Government published earlier this year which proposed changes which would facilitate the regulations needed for ACOs. The motion also states that “these changes will have far reaching implications for commissioning in the NHS, and that concerns have been raised that Accountable Care Organisations will encourage and facilitate further private sector involvement in the NHS, and about how the new organisations will be accountable to the public”.

The EDM was accompanied by a letter from the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth to the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, calling for parliamentary time to be allocated to the issue. The letter argued that “the Government has been reluctant to put details of the new arrangements into the public domain. It’s essential that the decision around whether to introduce ACOs into the NHS is taken in public, with a full debate and vote in Parliament.”

UK reaches agreement to progress to next stage of Brexit negotiations

The UK has reached agreement with the EU on key issues which will allow it to move on to the next stage of Brexit negotiations. The main topics being discussed were the Irish borders, the “divorce bill” and the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU. The DUP brought talks to a halt earlier in the week by opposing the proposals on the Irish border, and today’s agreement has satisfied these by guaranteeing that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Agreement was also reached that if the UK and EU do not agree a trade deal later on, the island of Ireland will maintain “full alignment” with parts of the single market and customs union, as stipulated in the Good Friday agreement.

Reports have also emerged that divorce bill has been estimated at between £35 billion and £39 billion, which the Prime Minister argued will enable the UK in future to “invest more in our priorities at home, such as housing, schools and the NHS.” The details need to be agreed at a European Council summit next week, and it is then expected to take about a year to agree the details of a future trade agreement between the two sides. Labour welcomed the progress but said that the Prime Minister should “seriously reflect on her approach to the negotiations so far.”

Spring Statement date confirmed

The Chancellor has confirmed that the first Spring Statement will be published on 13th March 2018. It will be the first financial Statement (rather than a Budget) which the Government has made since the Autumn Statement 2016, when it was announced that the Autumn Budget would become the only major fiscal event of the year from 2017. The Spring Statement will be used to respond to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s financial forecasts rather than making financial policy announcements.