Streeting and Atkins fail to back NHS student loan forgiveness

Both the Labour and Conservative parties have failed to back a scheme which would see all nurse student debt wiped if they commit to working in the NHS.

The policy, put forward in this week’s Times Health Commission report on health and social care, would see student loan debts for doctors, nurses and midwives decreased by 30% after three years’ service in the NHS, 70% after seven years and 100% after 10 years.

This scheme, the report said, would help improve nurse retention and ease financial anxiety among the NHS’ clinical workforce. 

At an event held by the commission, at The Times’ headquarters in London today (6 February), this policy was put to Victoria Atkins, current secretary of state for health and social care, and shadow health and social care secretary Wes Streeting.

Commission chair Rachel Sylvester asked Ms Atkins what she thought of the scheme.

Ms Atkins said such a decision would ultimately be made by Jeremy Hunt, chancellor of the exchequer, before adding: “The questions I had in my mind whilst reading [the report] were: how do we look at [the loan forgiveness policy] across the board in the public sector?

“Because we know, for example, that police officers […] often take degrees as well and we go to other parts of the public sector that do incredibly invaluable work and so we just want to be able to look at the horizon, not just the immediate term.”

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She did not explicitly state if her party would be exploring the loan forgiveness idea.

The health secretary pointed to the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan as an example of how her government would otherwise tackle retention.

She added: “We’re trying to get the message out to the public because some of the ideas are there, talking about apprenticeships for doctors and nursing apprenticeships.

“That is the way that we can open up the potential across the country for people to come to our healthcare system.”

Secretary of state for health and social care Victoria Atkins speaking at The Times Health Commission Summit on 6 February, 2024

Victoria Atkins speaking at the summit

Ms Sylvester later asked Labour’s Mr Streeting the same question.

Mr Streeting said he “liked” the proposal, and that it was an “attractive idea” which he thought would make healthcare workers feel more valued for their contributions.

“It says we value the commitment [they] are making to our NHS, to our country,” Mr Streeting said.

However, he said he could not commit to it at this stage.

Mr Streeting continued: “The really important caveat I need to lay down […], the reason I can’t say today that I can announce a Labour government will commit to it is for two reasons: we need to consider these issues right alongside the breadth and complexity of higher education and student finance.

“Secondly, on a fundamental level – and you’ll be sick of hearing this – […] is that we know public finances are really tight, there are difficult choices to be made and everything in our manifesto has to be fully costed and fully funded.”

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The commission calculated that the scheme would cost around £230m per year for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals and a further £170m for doctors.

Mr Streeting said: “We have to make sure when not just money is scarce, but trust is scarce, that every policy we announce is one we know we can keep […] and so for that reason, I can’t make an announcement or a commitment today.”

The shadow health secretary added that the commission had, however, made a “convincing argument” about loan forgiveness.

Wes Streeting, shadow secretary of state for health and social care speaking at The Times Health Commission Summit on 6 February, 2024

Wes Streeting being questioned

Mr Streeting commented further on retention in general: “I saw yesterday a poster on a bus stop outside one of [my constituency’s] hospitals actively encouraging staff at that hospital to go overseas.

“It read ‘care for others in a place that cares about you. British Columbia is working to move health care careers forward’.

“And I was really worried about that for two reasons. Firstly was the obvious naked attempt to poach our staff. But secondly, they are tapping in to how people are feeling working in the NHS at the moment, which is you are not valued. And that is really, really dangerous.”

The event also hosted panel sessions featuring some of the most senior figures in the NHS, the pharmaceutical industry and in health policy.

It focused on the 10 policy suggestions outlined in the commission’s report, with an emphasis on preventative healthcare, public health and reforming social care.

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