Will NHS stats spark polling day debate?

Hugh Pym
Health editor
@bbcHughPymon Twitter

Image source, stockvisual

On general election polling day, broadcasters are obliged to refrain from coverage of campaigning and stick to uncontroversial accounts of politicians voting or the weather.

But there could be an important news story that day relating to one of the main issues of the campaign - the state of the health service.

Thursday 8 June is the day announced by NHS England for the publication of its monthly statistics.

These cover a raft of data, including waiting times for accident & emergency and the number of people waiting longer than they should for cancer treatment and routine surgery.

In the absence of campaign coverage before the close of polls at 22:00 BST, the NHS figures published that day for the month of April may generate a certain amount of broadcast and online media interest.

Given trends revealed in previous months, it's likely that waiting lists will be longer than a year earlier although there may have been improvement on previous months.

Publications calendar

NHS England updated its publications calendar only last week after the prime minister's announcement of the general election on 8 June.

The monthly performance statistics are usually published on the Thursday of the first full week of a month so the choice of date is logical.

The date chosen for the previous month's statistics is 11 May and the data then may fuel exchanges between the parties at the height of the campaign.

This data publication issue has not occurred before because in previous campaigns NHS England was not putting out such a wide range of statistics on a single day each month.

The current system only started in the summer of 2015.

As things stand and if the chosen date is not altered, voters could head to the polling stations with the performance of the NHS one of the main news stories of the day.

So are any other important health announcements due during the campaign?

Whitehall's traditional "purdah" during an election period has begun.

This obliges government departments and other public sector organisations to refrain from new policy announcements.

The idea is to stop a government rushing out initiatives close to polling day.

Usually purdah takes effect when parliament is dissolved but this time it has been imposed more than a week before that.

Controlling the agenda

There have been claims, denied by government sources, that closing down the official news machine early is part of Downing Street's attempt to tightly control the agenda.

Pre-announced official statistics, like the NHS England performance figures, are not affected by purdah.

It is the same for economic data announcements like unemployment and inflation which go ahead as usual.

There is, however, uncertainty around one other key health service publication - the quarterly financial figures from hospitals and other trusts in England.

The regulator NHS Improvement would normally publish in late May the total deficits for trusts for the three months ending in March.

These are especially important as they cover the final quarter of the financial year and so give the full year total.

The state of NHS finances is a political hot potato and these figures are sure to generate more heated debate. But will they be published during the campaign?

Unlike pre-announced official statistics, the precise date for the NHS Improvement financial data is not confirmed until close to the chosen publication date.

I am told there is a debate at a high level of the NHS over whether they should be released, as would be expected, a couple of weeks before polling day in June.

There is a delicate balance to be struck between the public's right to see normally published information from autonomous NHS bodies and the need to take on board the sensitivities of a campaign.

Some delicate decisions have to be made.

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