Health minister forced to walk back NHS 'new money' claim in excruciating interview

PUBLISHED: 13:20 06 August 2019 | UPDATED: 13:38 06 August 2019

Health minister Chris Skidmore struggled to defend claims that cash for the NHS announced by Boris Johnson is 'new money'. Picture: Channel 4

Health minister Chris Skidmore struggled to defend claims that cash for the NHS announced by Boris Johnson is 'new money'. Picture: Channel 4

Channel 4

A health minister has struggled to defend Boris Johnson's claims that a promised £1.8 billion in funding for the NHS is 'new money'.

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Johnson announced that £850 million would go towards 20 hospital upgrades and another £1 billion for capital spending. "It's part of a national programme that the NHS asked for and I want to stress this is new money," he said at the Pilgrim hospital in Lincolnshire.

But shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth has accused the prime minister of misleading the public, arguing that hospitals were simply being allowed to spend cash from savings already made through previous cuts.

Downing Street has acknowledged that some of the money would "allow existing upgrades to proceed", but during an appearance on Channel 4 News health minister Chris Skidmore was stopped in his tracks when he attempted to echo the prime minister's 'new money' line.

"No, this is new money," Skidmore told presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy. "It's £1.8 billion on top of the £3.9 billion that was announced for capital spending back in 2017."

But Guru-Murthy challenged this claim, prompting Skidmore to insist that the money was from the Treasury.

"I'm trying to work out where this money has come from," said the presenter. "Hospitals up and down the country have been saving money for years, but have not been allowed to spend it. And the understanding from experts like the Nuffield Trust is that this is an accounting exercise which now releases that money to be spent. Money that they saved by cutting on services that they're now able to spend on capital projects.

"Are you saying that that is untrue?"

"No," admitted Skidmore finally.

"When it comes to capital you can't just suddenly announce this on projects that suddenly appear," he added. "Projects are in the pipeline for a long period of time and what we've been able to do today is release the money to make those projects finally happen."

Labour's shadow health minister Ashworth told PA: "Boris Johnson has misled the public and our NHS staff. You cannot trust a word he says and his claims are unravelling."

Sally Warren, director of King's Fund health think tank, acknowledged that the announcement would give the NHS "new spending power". However, she said that it could also be seen as simply reversing cuts which had been made last year.

"At one level yes it is new money - if the Treasury today were not providing this money, NHS trusts would not be able to spend this £1.8 billion," she told the BBC.

"But another view is that actually - particularly the £1 billion that's been announced today - is really reversing cuts that trusts were asked to make this year."

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers - the body which negotiates on behalf of NHS trusts with the government - said "both the government and the health think tanks are correct".

But critics have said that the money is only a fraction of what is needed to improve the NHS sufficiently.

Boris Johnson again pledges to deliver £350 million a week for the NHS

Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust think tank, said: "This is a welcome down payment on the staggering £6 billion needed to clear the backlog of NHS maintenance but it will only be a fraction of what it would cost to really upgrade 20 hospitals," he said.

"Nobody should expect shiny new hospitals in their towns any time soon."

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