Parties should not use the NHS as “a political weapon” in the election campaign, health service bosses say.
NHS Providers chief Chris Hopson said “over dramatising NHS difficulties” or making “disingenuous” funding claims did the service “no favours”.
Mr Hopson acts for health trust leaders in England and urged politicians not to make “empty promises” or create “unrealistic expectations”.
The NHS is set to become a key battleground during the campaign.
Mr Hopson called for a “proper, mature, evidence-based” debate on what the NHS needs.
“Let’s not resort to the cheap political slogans and skimming across the top which is what we’ve seen over the last four or five elections,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
Speaking on Sunday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the BBC a Labour government would seek to end privatised contracts in the NHS – in which private companies can provide clinical as well as non-clinical services such as catering and cleaning.
Mr McDonnell argued the public did not want money “being poured into the pockets of profiteers”.
Pushed on whether an incoming Labour government would see the eradication of all privatisation in the NHS, he said “we’ll see how those [existing] contracts run out”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has also raised concerns that the NHS could be vulnerable to infiltration by American health companies in any post-Brexit trade deal with the US, saying he was “concerned about the relationship of the Tory party with the US government”.
However, the Conservatives have argued that the health service would be protected in any trade talks and have strongly denied that the NHS is “up for sale”.
In the course of the campaign, the Tories are expected to trumpet extra NHS spending, including a £2.7bn investment for six hospitals in England over five years and £100m for a further 34 hospitals to start developing future projects.
Writing on the Times website, Mr Hopson, who acts for hospitals and other health trust leaders, said voters were passionate about the health service, writing “the polls show it’s what makes us most proud to be British”.
He said it was “understandable that, come election time, politicians will look to harness that popularity, inevitably casting themselves as champions and defenders of the NHS”.
However, he warned “it becomes counter-productive when the NHS is used as a political weapon” – something he said leaders in the health service were worried was starting to happen in this campaign.
He acknowledged that there were areas where “the NHS is falling short”, arguing frontline services could not keep up with “growing demand”.
The NHS always features prominently in election campaigns.
It is unrealistic to expect the parties to dial down their highly-charged debates on the subject.
But NHS Providers, representing trust leaders in England, argues that already things are getting out of hand with signs that the NHS is being “weaponised”.
There is a message that over-dramatised claims about the state of frontline services and misleading claims about funding won’t help staff or voters.
Underlying all this is a warning that the NHS in England cannot seem to keep up with growing demand for care, which is “particularly worrying” with winter looming.
Hospital chiefs are known to be concerned that there was intense pressure in recent weeks before winter had really set in.
How that pressure develops before polling day could be a major issue in this campaign.
Mr Hopson said “over-dramatising or distorting the difficulties for political ends will do nothing to help those frontline staff who are working flat out for patients.
“Equally, disingenuous claims about extra funding, or promises that create unrealistic expectations, may be tempting in the heat of the election battle, but they do the health service no favours.”
In the past, he added, the NHS had been “a serial victim of politicians slicing and dicing funding numbers and making empty promises that were never actually delivered”.
Speaking to the BBC on Monday, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said it was right for hospital leaders “to hold us politicians to account”.
“But by the same token, I’m passionate about the NHS,” he said.