By Sean Martin
The Scottish Conservatives have announced plans to scrap free prescriptions at their party conference in Edinburgh today.
Commencing and concluding her speech with appeals for a No vote in September’s referendum, party leader Ruth Davidson also called for education sector reform and declared her wholehearted backing of both the Westminster government’s approach to the welfare system and Chancellor George Osborne’s tax cuts.
But it was her plans for reforming the health sector which proved, as expected, the biggest announcement of the day. Echoing her speech at the party conference two years ago, her first as leader, Davidson said she favoured an end to universal free prescriptions – which were introduced by the SNP government in 2011 – in order to fund the recruitment of an extra 1,000 nurses and midwives in the NHS.
Under the plan, free prescriptions would be available only to children, the over-60s, pregnant women and people on income support or jobseeker’s allowance. Students would also receive free prescriptions – but only until the age of 19.
Davidson did not specify a fee, although reports suggest she would opt to reintroduce the £6.85 prescription cost that was in place in 2007. Such a charge would affect around half the population. In England, the fee is due to rise from £7.85 to £8.05 on 1 April, while prescriptions are currently free in Wales and Northern Ireland.
She went on to draw parallels between the SNP’s time in government and the fluctuating quantity of nurses and midwives. “Under the SNP, the number of nurses and midwives in Scotland has gone up and down like a fiddler’s elbow,” said Davidson.
She added: “Millions are spent on bank or agency nurses to plug the gaps – it’s not good enough for staff and it’s not good enough for patients.
“That’s why today I am able to announce that the Scottish Conservatives will pledge an extra 1,000 nurses and midwives for Scotland and, once introduced, we will not let numbers drop below that mark.”
Health Secretary Alex Neil has already hit out at the policy. The MSP for Airdrie and Shotts called into question both the overall premise of the pledge and the implication that it is a choice between prescription charges or more nursing jobs.
“It is not a case of funding either prescriptions or nurses. In Scotland’s NHS we can and will provide free prescriptions, pay our NHS staff a fair wage and protect an NHS free at the point of need,” said Neil. “Prescription charges were a tax on ill health. They prevent people getting the medication they need, damage their ability to work and can lead to an increase in the workload for hospitals, nurses and GPs.”
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and one of the most active commentators on the independence debate, queried the ideas set out in Davidson’s speech.
“It was a vision which cuts across what many people regard as being the dominant narrative in Scotland – the idea of Scotland being a more social democratic country and wanting more equality,” said Professor Curtice. “But she [Davidson] was saying: ‘no, I believe in choice in public services, lower taxation and welfare reform’.
“There was something rather funny about that because – if that was her dominant message – why then was the one and only policy promise made in the speech actually a promise to reintroduce a tax: the prescription tax?”