The early tenure of a new opposition leader is usually marked by the development of new policy platforms, media campaigns and a renewed attempt to set the ideological direction of the party.

Not so for Sir Keir Starmer, for whom COVID-19 has been a baptism of fire. The Labour health team has also been thrust into the limelight, with Jonathan Ashworth’s reappointment as Shadow Health Secretary providing some much-needed continuity, supported by a new team of shadow ministers. Starmer’s swift decision to reset each portfolio to directly shadow Government ministers has also created a substantially more effective and dynamic opposition, capable of handling the rapidly evolving political environment.

Coronavirus crisis response

Within hours of becoming leader, Starmer pledged to engage “constructively” with the Government on COVID-19, balancing the need to hold the Government to account with the need to support ministerial efforts to tackle an unprecedented pandemic. The decision to predominantly focus on the impact of the crisis on overstretched primary care services, rather than divisive lockdown decisions, was a clear reflection of this approach.

Starmer’s cautionary approach during the first six weeks of his leadership was rewarded with a modest bounce in ratings and renewed respect for the Labour Party. More recently, though, with public confidence and trust in the Government dwindling, the party has adopted a more hostile and proactive strategy in the media. In this new political space, Labour is expected to considerably increase its attacks on the Government, while attempting to rebuild the Party’s credibility – and within this context, the Shadow Health team will play an increasingly important role.

Priorities for the Health Team in the Short-Term

Social care: COVID-19 has only served to reinforce the need to address social care, so Labour will look to increase the pressure on the Government to publish the long-awaited Green Paper on social care. Starmer’s decision to appoint media-friendly and experienced MP Liz Kendall as Shadow Social Care Minister will undoubtedly bolster Labour’s efforts to draw attention to this issue.

Impact on wider services: One key theme for the Shadow Health team will be scrutinising how the redirection of resources primarily towards respiratory health during the pandemic has impacted wider NHS services. Strategy in this area is being led by Shadow Public Health Minister Alex Norris, and is expected to particularly focus on the impact on cancer services and transplants. Messaging is set to focus heavily on analysing controversial NHS performance targets.

Funding: With the Government rumoured to have pencilled in a fiscal event for the week commencing 6 July to outline an economic recovery plan, Labour will be keen to test whether the Chancellor backs up his pledge to give the NHS “whatever extra resources” it needs to cope.

Impact of Brexit: With warnings emerging about the impact of COVID-19 on medicine stockpiles, Labour will lean on traditional public concerns around ensuring any deal maintains affordable access to medicines, with Ashworth and Shadow Cabinet Minister Rachel Reeves set to focus on this in the media. However, with the limited scope for Parliament to scrutinise any trade bill, Labour ultimately knows its influence over negotiations will be limited to a ‘take it or leave it’ scenario.

Inequalities: With the recent PHE report into COVID-19’s impact on BAME communities reinforcing the considerable inequalities in health outcomes, Labour is set to intensify its calls for a funded inequalities strategy. Labour is also set to reinforce its longstanding policy proposals on combatting inequalities across healthcare, with Ashworth taking a keen personal interest in this work.

What next for Health policy under Keir Starmer’s Labour?

With a new leader in charge, a deeper assessment of Labour’s current health policy programme is also on the horizon. However, progress is expected to be limited until the Party has developed a new prospectus to respond to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

The evaluation of Labour’s current health agenda will likely only begin after an internal review by the National Policy Forum, though no date has been put in place. Notably, in the absence of a physical Party Conference in September, the ability of members to engage in policy development or reaffirm proposals supported by Jeremy Corbyn may be limited. This is expected to pave the way for some of the more radical policies, such as Labour’s Medicines for the Many agenda, to be quietly parked until closer to the next election in 2024.

With Starmer’s grip on the Party now cemented with the appointment of David Evans as general secretary, Labour’s new leader must decide how significantly he wishes to transform the ideological direction of the party. That decision above all will ultimately determine the fate of Labour’s existing health policy platform.

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