Boris Johnson’s election promise to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 is facing an investigation by a public spending watchdog.
The National Audit Office (NAO) is planning a “value for money review” that could span increasing costs due to soaring inflation and whether the hospitals are actually new.
The proposed inquiry was revealed in a letter to shadow health secretary Wes Streeting from NAO chief Gareth Davies after the Labor MP warned about a waste of taxpayers’ money.
The opposition frontbencher had called for a probe into delays surrounding the hospital program announced by the prime minister in the 2019 general election campaign to help alleviate pressure on the NHS.
Ministers have defended the progress of the scheme and insist they are “getting on with that job”.
But Mr Streeting said many NHS trusts were still awaiting funds to be allocated and many schemes were in fact alterations or refurbishments not “new hospitals”.
At the end of last year, Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer challenged the prime minister over a New Hospitals Program Communications Playbook documentwhich advised trusts to call hospitals new even if they included an additional wing or involved a major revamp of an existing hospital building.
The Department of Health and Social Care website, under the heading “What will these new hospitals look like?”, states: “In some cases, they will be new hospitals on a new site, in other cases a new hospital on an existing site , major redevelopment or refurbishment on an existing site or a new wing of an existing hospital, provided it contains a whole clinical service.”
In the letter to Mr Streeting, first reported by the Observer, Mr Davies, the NAO’s comptroller, said: “I can confirm that I already have plans to start a value for money review of the New Hospitals Program later this year and to report my findings during 2023.
“I have passed your letter to my Health Value for Money team so it can consider the specific issues you raised as it develops the scope of the review.
“In particular, I note your comments about the implications of delay for increasing costs at this time of high inflation and the matter of whether all projects truly meet the classification of ‘new hospitals’.”
‘Boris Johnson’s imagination’
The investigation will add further to the pressure on the embattled prime minister, already wrestling with a series of scandals including partygate and accusations of sexual misconduct leveled at Tory MPs, including Chris Pincher.
Mr Streeting said: “The only place these ’40 new hospitals’ currently exist is in Boris Johnson’s imagination.
“The election manifesto promise now looks to be another example of the Conservatives overpromising and underdelivering.”
The Conservative manifesto stated the party would “build and fund 40 new hospitals over the next 10 years.”
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said a number of projects had already been completed and others were under way.
She said: “This is a reasonably long-term project.
“We are getting on with that job and I know many communities around the country are really appreciating the additional facilities – the rebuilt facilities as well as the brand new facilities – in order to make sure that they have 21st century healthcare available to treat the as patients.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement: “We are on track to deliver 40 new hospitals by 2030.
“We are working closely with the NHS and trusts on the development of their building plans.
“Each of the building projects will be new hospitals providing brand new, state-of-the-art facilities to ensure world-class provision of healthcare for NHS patients and staff by replacing outdated infrastructure.”