Satisfaction with the NHS dropped sharply in the coalition's first year in power, figures out today have confirmed, triggering intense debate about what the decline actually means.
The King's Fund health thinktank released data from this year's British Social Attitudes survey showing overall satisfaction with the NHS dropped from 70% to 58% in just 12 months.
"If that wasn't enough, what makes this drop even more notable is that it comes after almost continuous annual improvements in satisfaction since 2001," King's Fund chief economist John Appleby commented.
The drop represents the largest fall in any year since the survey began in 1983, leading shadow health secretary Andy Burnham to conclude that it "speaks volumes" the decline happened after the first full year of Tory control of the health service.
Political factors apart from the actual performance of the NHS appear to be behind the drop, as waiting times and rates of healthcare-acquired infections remain broadly unchanged or are falling.
"Apart from media headlines and unease about the possible impact of the government's reforms to one of Britain's best loved institutions, the other notable policy factor that is likely to have filtered through to the public's consciousness is the virtual, real-terms freeze in NHS funding and the associated programme to improve productivity," Mr Appleby pointed out.
"However, the language associated with this is unlikely to have been reassuring to many: if the NHS says it is making savings, many may well hear the word 'cuts', for example."
Labour claimed the coalition was taking the NHS "back to the bad old days of the 80s and 90s", however.
"It takes a special kind of incompetence to inherit a successful NHS with patient satisfaction at an all-time high and in just two years in government turn it into an organisation demoralised, destabilised and fearful of the future," Mr Burnham said.
"David Cameron said the NHS would be his priority but the reality is that under him we've seen waiting lists spiralling out of control the NHS sinking into chaos."
The findings of the survey have been vigorously contested by the government, which pointed out that 92% thought their overall experience of the NHS was good, very good or excellent.
"The British Social Attitudes Survey targets the general public rather than targeting people that have actually used the NHS, so responses are influenced by other factors - by its nature it is not as accurate a picture as the data from patients," health minister Simon Burns said.
"Our own polling of the general public, undertaken independently by Mori, shows that satisfaction with the NHS is broadly stable at around 70% over a similar and more recent time period."