How much do we love the NHS?

Medic holding model heart Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The NHS is close to many people's hearts

Accident and emergency targets missed, longer waits, ambulances queuing at hospitals, rising patient numbers, intense pressures - yet public satisfaction with the NHS is close to a record high.

What's happening? Its an interesting question at a time when the political debate ahead of the general election is reaching fever pitch.

The latest polling data comes from the British Social Attitudes survey, covering a range of issues, which has been conducted every year since 1983 apart from 1988 and 1992.

It was carried out in England, Scotland and Wales, covering just under 2,000 adults weighted to reflect the age, gender and geographic spread of the population.

Its important to note that most of the interviews were carried out in August and September, with some over the next two months but all before winter set in with a succession of headlines about accident & emergency problems.

Those interviewed were representative of the whole population, not just patients. But the survey, conducted in association with the King's Fund think tank, does provide a consistent data set going back more than 30 years.

The survey's headline finding is that public satisfaction with the NHS rose from 60 to 65% in 2014, the highest in any year apart from 2010 when it was at 70%.

There was a big drop in 2011, but much of that ground has been recovered.

Big unknown

Satisfaction with A&E services rose despite pressure on the system building from the spring. More than 70% of those surveyed were satisfied with GPs, though this was the lowest since the survey began.

The BSA/King's Fund survey is published as successive opinion polls put the NHS at the top of voter concerns.

An IPSOS/MORI poll in January reported that 46% said health issues were very important, up from 29% in September 2014. Managing the economy, the next most important issue, trailed at 33%.

And a BBC/Populus poll this week suggested that people thought the NHS was the most important issue to be covered by the news ahead of the election, ahead of the economy and immigration.

The big unknown is how all this plays out when voters walk into polling stations in May.

If they are satisfied with the NHS, might they give the coalition parties their support? Or might they back the claim that to ensure continued satisfaction with the health service only a vote for Labour will suffice? If they think that health is the most important issue how will this translate into crosses on ballot papers?

It's hard to work out the answers.

Far from plain

More detailed fieldwork by IPSOS/MORI reveals some intriguing views amongst British population.

It found 27% of those surveyed lacked confidence they would receive high quality NHS care in their local area this winter.

Yet 68% of Britons agreed that the NHS was a "symbol of what is great about Great Britain" and everything should be done to maintain it. So, it seems, people can love the NHS and still be worried about the service this winter.

One thing is clear - the NHS will be a major issue out on the campaign trail. Its far from plain, though, how people's views on the service will help or hinder the rival parties as they scrap for every vote.

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