Jeremy Corbyn has used the first prime minister’s questions of 2018 to castigate Theresa May for presiding over what he described as a crisis in the NHS, chiding her for being “too weak” to sack the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
The prime minister reiterated her apologies to patients who have had operations postponed or been forced to wait in ambulances, but insisted the health service was properly funded and fully ready to face the winter.
Corbyn began by reminding May that at the PMQs before Christmas he had discussed how 12,000 people had waited more than half an hour in ambulances before being admitted to accident and emergency departments.
“She told the house the NHS was better prepared for winter than ever before,” Corbyn said. “So what words of comfort does the prime minister have to the 17,000 patients waiting in the back of ambulances in the last week of December. Is it that nothing is perfect, by any chance?”
May responded: “I fully accept that the NHS is under pressure over winter. It is regularly under pressure at winter times.
“I’ve been very clear – I apologise to those people who’ve had their operations delayed, and to those people who have had their admissions to hospital delayed. But it is, indeed, the case that the NHS was better prepared than ever before.”
She cited statistics on the increased take-up of flu vaccines, a rise in acute beds and the availability of GP appointments over Christmas.
Corbyn turned his attention to Monday’s chaotic cabinet reshuffle, during which Hunt managed to talk May out of moving him to the business department and instead taking on an expanded social care remit.
“We know the prime minister recognises there’s a crisis in our NHS because she wanted to sack the health secretary last week, but was too weak to do it,” he said.
May, sitting alongside her new cabinet – the former education secretary Justine Greening sati near fellow remain-minded backbenchers Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry – again apologised for the postponed operations.
She also asked Corbyn for further details of a case the Labour leader raised: a woman, Vicky, said her 82-year-old mother had spent 13 hours on a trolley in a hospital corridor, after a three-hour delay between the first 999 call and her arriving at hospital.
Corbyn said: “This is not an isolated case. Does the prime minister really believe that the NHS is better prepared than ever for the crisis it’s now going through.”
May replied: “Nobody wants to hear about people having to experience what Vicky and her mother experienced, and of course we need to ensure that we learn from these incidents..”
The prime minister criticised Corbyn’s negativity about the NHS, and said Labour’s record of running the NHS in Wales had seen health spending fall.
“Week in, week out, in the run up to Christmas and now today, what the right honourable gentleman is doing is giving the impression of a National Health Service that is failing everybody that goes to use the NHS,” she said. “Our National Health Service is something we should be proud of.”
Corbyn ended with a rousing summary, as has become his habit – these final orations are generally put on the Labour party website, where they receive hundreds of thousands of views.
“The prime minister needs to understand that it’s her policies that are pushing our NHS into crisis. Tax cuts for the super rich and big business and paid for by longer waiting lists, ambulance delays, staff shortages and cuts to social care,” he said.
“Creeping privatisation is dragging our NHS down. The health secretary, during his occupation of her office to keep his job, said he won’t abandon the ship. Isn’t that an admission that under his captaincy, the ship is, indeed, sinking?”
May ended with her own impassioned defence of the NHS, and of the Conservatives’ wider record on the economy.
She also referred to an interview last week by the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, in which she described Labour’s economic policy as “shit or bust”. May referred to this instead as “high risk” – and said this showed the perils of a potential Labour government.
The prime minister did, however, offer an apology after noting that Rayner was not in the Commons, only to be told by MPs that Rayner was undergoing medical treatment and had arranged to be absent.