“I've been launching our programme to build 40 new hospitals in this country”
Boris Johnson, 29 September 2019
“Over the next decade we will build, not ten, not twenty, but forty new state of the art hospitals.”
Matt Hancock MP, 30 September 2019
“Yet again a Boris Johnson health announcement has quickly unravelled as spin. This isn’t 40 new hospitals, it is just reconfiguring six.”
Jonathan Ashworth MP, 29 September 2019
Over the weekend, the government announced plans to build 40 new hospitals around the country and this was widely reported in the media.
However, the announcement quickly came under fire amid claims that rather than building 40 new hospitals, in reality, only six hospitals would be upgraded by 2025. This was also widely reported.
BBC News also tweeted and then deleted a tweet about an article which ran with “40 new hospitals” in the headline, replacing it with “Government plans billions for hospital projects”.
It’s correct that the government in this announcement has only allocated funding for six hospitals to receive building work by 2025. Up to 38 other hospitals will receive money to develop plans for upgrades between 2025 and 2030, but not to undertake any building work.
There is money to upgrade six hospitals
The government says “We’re giving the green light to more than 40 new hospital projects across the country, six getting the go-ahead immediately, and over 30 that could be built over the next decade”.
It has confirmed that six hospitals in England are being given £2.7 billion by 2025 as part of a “new hospital building programme”. For example, one of the hospitals earmarked for the money is Whipps Cross in London. Its initial plans involve building a new hospital on the existing site, which will take up less space and “brings all the hospital’s services closer together under one roof. The remainder of the estate would be released for… new homes and community facilities”.
Another 21 hospital trusts are being given £100 million in seed funding to prepare a business case for their hospitals—but no money for any actual building work. The plan is for works on these hospitals to take place between 2025 and 2030.
The government says that seed funding will cover 34 hospitals, and has also published a list of which hospitals are included. By our count, there are 38 hospitals listed (if you count all 12 community hospitals in Dorset which are listed as “potentially” getting funding). Presumably, the 34 extra hospitals needed to reach the total figure of 40 are to be found within this list of 38, and we’ve asked the Department of Health and Social Care for more information on this.
Experts welcome the “much needed” money, but say it isn’t enough
The health think tank the Health Foundation has said: “The government’s announcement today amounts to almost £3bn of additional capital funding over the next 5 years focused on upgrading six NHS hospitals. While this money is very much needed following years of underinvestment in the NHS's crumbling infrastructure, it falls well short of the scale of the challenge. With a backlog of maintenance and repairs that amounts to more than £6bn – much of which threatens patient's safety – and dozens of NHS trust upgrade projects that have been delayed or cancelled, the figure needed is closer to £3bn each year for the next 5 years.”
Another health think tank, the King’s Fund has said: “On the face of it, the various schemes being pledged by the government certainly sound like substantial investment, but these piecemeal announcements are not the same as having a proper, multi-year capital funding plan. The lack of clarity around how the new schemes have been selected and how the pledges fit within the Department for Health and Social Care's overall financial settlement makes it difficult to tell how generous the government is being.”
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers which represents NHS trusts, said “We have led calls for more capital funding to rebuild our NHS so we welcome this significant and important new commitment.
“The new £3 billion that’s been committed for 2020-25 will be particularly good news for the patients and staff in the six acute hospitals that will directly benefit. We welcome the Government’s intention to fund a further 21 schemes between 2025 and 2030 and the £100 million for those organisations to start work on developing those projects, noting that the funding to complete those schemes remains to be allocated.”
More detail needed on government announcements
This isn’t the only government announcement that has come under fire in recent months for not offering what it initially seemed to.
In his first speech on becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced that 20 hospitals would be receiving upgrades. That was on the 24 July. It wasn’t until almost two weeks later that the full list of hospitals in England and some details about the spending they would receive were published.
We then fact checked that announcement: that £1.8 billion of new money was being given to the NHS, part of which would be spent on the 20 hospitals. After much to and fro we found this claim all depends on how you define ‘new money’. While the Treasury will have to increase spending by this amount over the next five years, some of it is money that NHS trusts had already earned, but were subsequently told they couldn’t spend.
It took us three weeks to get a response from the Department of Health and Social Care on this and even then it didn’t provide us with any information which clarified the situation. The Office for Statistics Regulation has asked the department to explain fully where the money is coming from.
The Johnson government is hardly the first to try and present policy announcements in the most favourable light. But the principle here is pretty simple: if governments want to issue major policy announcements with large headline figures, they should provide details of where the funding is coming from, or which institutions will receive it and when. And they should be able to provide that information at the time they make the announcement, not weeks later.