Sir Tony Blair has warned that without radical reforms, including a stronger role for the private sector, the NHS will “continue down the path of decline”.
The former prime minister called for “bold political leadership” to protect the future of healthcare.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary, Sir Tony said there was no future for the NHS without “fully embracing the technological revolution”.
And he called for the service to rely much more on private healthcare providers to reduce wait times. Sir Tony’s proposals included allowing patients to pay to speed up access to healthcare.
His intervention comes the day after former Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who has suggested patients should pay to see a GP, called for a royal commission on the NHS’ model. He said the NHS was “frozen in time” and that research was needed to compare it to models used in comparable countries.
And the former Labor leader said in a report by his think tank Tony Blair Institute: “The NHS needs fundamental reform now or support for it will eventually wane. As in the 1990s, the NHS must either change or decay.”
He said that despite “excellence”, the NHS is lagging behind other countries’ health systems with many services “remaining slow and unresponsive to digital transformation”.
By engaging the private sector, the NHS would open up to providers whose “funding and accountability incentives aim to encourage innovation”.
Sir Tony said the NHS app has opened the door to partnering with the private sector in “ways not possible before” and created “opportunities for more choice and competition”.
In the foreword to his report, which proposes reforms to make the NHS fit for the future, SirTony advocates six times for an increased role for the private sector.
Sir Tony said: “Change is never easy and requires bold political leadership. If we don’t act, the NHS will continue to decline, to the detriment of our people and our economy.”
Labour’s Wes Streeting said he “did not agree” with Sir Tony’s suggestion that some people should be able to pay to use NHS services.
The shadow health secretary said the UK “already has a two-tier system in place”, adding that “people who can afford are paying to work privately and those who can’t are being left behind”.
But he supplemented his warnings about the future of healthcare, claiming the NHS will die without “the necessary investment and reform” to change and modernise.
“Right now the NHS is in jeopardy. I’m concerned for the future of the NHS, I think for the rest of the country as well,” he told Sky News.
“If it doesn’t change, it will die.
“And yet the core principles of the NHS – public service, free at point of use, there for us when we need it – are certainly possible for the next 75 years, but it needs the right leadership.”
Mr Streeting criticized what he described as an “absurd spectacle” of “ministers celebrating the 75th anniversary of an institution they broke”.
And Health Secretary Steve Barclay has insisted the NHS can thrive without a dramatic overhaul, insisting it needs “continuous evolution and not a big bang”.
He dismissed calls from Mr Javid and Sir Tony to consider a fundamental overhaul of the NHS model.
And Mr Barclay said the freedom of the NHS at the point of use was “a source of national pride”, adding that the Government was “fully committed to these fundamental principles”.
The health secretary wrote in the Times: “There is clearly pressure on services, particularly in the wake of the pandemic and with changing demographics and healthcare needs.
“It is important that the NHS changes and adapts in response and improves technology and medical advances, but this requires constant evolution – not a big moment.”
And he added that under the government’s plans, the NHS “will be in a position to provide the best care to patients for the next 75 years”.