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Jeremy Hunt’s first Budget was delivered against a particularly challenging backdrop. The Government is behind in the polls, multiple sectors are striking, and economic growth remains stubbornly low. 
In this context, it is unsurprising that the Chancellor focused much of his attention on voter-friendly initiatives aimed at delivering support with the cost of living. With the majority of its contents thoroughly pre-briefed, it was a far cry from the rabbit-out-of-the-hat Budgets of Conservative Chancellors past, but this was to be expected given the reaction to his predecessor’s ‘mini-budget’. 
For health and social care, the Budget was most notable for what it did not contain. There was hope in some quarters that there would be announcements on workforce planning, new funding to bring industrial disputes to an end, or additional support for the social care system. 
However, despite the focus on reducing waiting times in the Prime Minister’s priorities, there was no new investment to support an expansion in NHS capacity, beyond changes to pension rules that it is hoped will help address retention issues among higher earners in the NHS workforce. 
The Treasury is likely to point to the injection of additional cash that was provided in the Autumn, but the commitment to improve access to NHS services and get waiting lists down is no small ask. While recent progress against long waits is to be welcomed, the key test for the Government at the next election will be whether a majority of people feel that access to care has improved – this will require significant reductions to waiting times across the board, from emergency to primary and elective care. We will likely see that questions on NHS funding and capacity return ahead of the Autumn Statement. 
The omission of details on the promised workforce plan is perhaps the biggest surprise, given the Chancellor’s personal commitment to the issue, though briefings have started to emerge in recent weeks about concerns within the Treasury regarding the potential costs involved – it remains to be seen whether the commitment to publish a plan “shortly” will be accompanied by clarity on funding. 
The Chancellor did take the opportunity to announce a series of changes to medicines regulation – enabling “near automatic” approval of new medicines that other global regulators have licensed and creating a new streamlined approval process for “cutting-edge” treatments and devices. 
These changes will no doubt be welcomed by industry and charities. However, they are unlikely to go far enough to address the wider challenges that the sector has recently highlighted with the current UK environment. Again, it is likely that there will be calls on the Chancellor to revisit the issue later in the year. 
Despite the lack of attention on the NHS in the Budget, over the next few months we can expect to see a stream of policy announcements that will keep the heath policy world busy – the workforce strategy, the Hewitt Review and the Primary Care Recovery Plan are all due to land in the near future and their contents will provide an indication of how the Government is planning to deliver on the Prime Minister’s commitment to reducing waiting times. 
Their ability to do so will be contingent on fixing the issues that weren’t addressed in the Budget: bringing strikes to an end, increasing capacity on the front-line and bridging gaps between the NHS and social care. If progress is not made in these areas, we can expect calls for the Chancellor to open his chequebook to become even louder.

by Ed McIntosh, Head of UK Practice