Blog: Brexit realism? The NHS? Some of the key issues ignored by Sunak and Truss – The Guardian

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have clashed vehemently over tax and spending, immigration and the UK’s stance on China in their acrimonious battle to become prime minister – but have had little to say about many other pressing issues. Here are some largely overlooked key issues of the contest so far.

Standards in public life

Boris Johnson was swept out of office when his own MPs could no longer defend or explain the repeated untruths emanating from No 10. He had breached Covid regulations, allowed an alleged serial sexual harasser to be appointed to the whips’ office and seen two ethics advisers resign in disgust.

Yet cleaning up politics has barely featured in the debate – and indeed, Sunak and Truss have felt the need to defend Johnson, with Sunak saying at his launch event that the outgoing prime minister has “a good heart”.

There have been some hints at change – Truss said at Thursday’s hustings that she would move the Tory whips’ office back into No 12 Downing Street, to allow MPs’ conduct to be more closely monitored, and Sunak has said he would appoint a new ethics adviser. But neither has fully addressed the need to rebuild public trust in politics after the Johnson era.

The NHS

Before Tuesday’s TalkTV debate was brought to an abrupt halt by the presenter fainting, the candidates were challenged by John, a cancer patient, who asked: “Why is the NHS broken?”

It was one of the few moments in the campaign so far when the parlous state of the health service has been mentioned. Truss said she wanted to see layers of NHS management stripped away, and Sunak pointed to the importance of new technologies.

But neither had a solution to the immediate, pressing crisis, with more than 6.6 million people waiting for care. Truss even admitted her local hospital was in such a bad state it was held up with “stilts”, but did not have much to say about how that could be rectified.

Social care

The NHS’s problems are closely entwined with the crumbling state of the social care system, which has barely featured in the leadership campaign.

Truss has said she would go ahead with Johnson’s plans for an £86,000 cap on the amount individuals would have to pay towards their own care, despite cancelling the tax rise earmarked to pay for it. Sunak would presumably do so, too, given that legislation has already been passed enacting it.

But neither has had much to say about how they would ensure the system provides a better quality of care.

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Brexit realism

Brexit has been mentioned in the race, with the candidates promising to slash EU red tape – and Sunak ribbing Truss for having campaigned for remain.

Truss has said she would press ahead with her confrontational Northern Ireland protocol bill, risking a trade war. Sunak suggested in Thursday’s hustings that the legislation would create “free-flowing trade” with no need for a border – echoing Johnson’s insouciance when he told Northern Ireland businesses they should “bin” any forms they were asked to sign.

But there has been little realistic discussion of the queues at Dover as families wait to have their passports stamped, the decline in trade with the EU, or a string of other practical challenges.

Covid

The pandemic has been invoked with hindsight during the campaign: Sunak boasted of his involvement in preventing a Christmas lockdown in December 2021, while Truss questioned whether schools should ever have been closed.

There has been little discussion of managing current and future waves of Covid. While it has slipped out of the headlines, the virus has continued to cause mass staff absences and consume valuable NHS resources, despite Omicron and its subvariants being less dangerous than predecessors.

With a booster programme coming in the autumn, and the ever-present threat of more deadly variants, the new prime minister may have to make vital decisions about tackling the virus.

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