Health service in crisis

Will the NI raise be enough to fix the NHS?

For half a century the National Health Service was hailed as the jewel in the welfare state’s crown and reckoned to be the envy of the world. It worked, not just for the wealthy and privileged, but for everyone, rich and poor. That was the point; that was its success. But with the combined effects of a decade of underfunding by successive governments and the massive impact of Covid-19, threatening once more to overwhelm exhausted and disillusioned frontline hospital staff, the NHS is on the brink of collapse. In a recent press conference Health Secretary Sajid Javid claimed, “We are a lot closer to normal than we were a few months ago,” and added that the pressure on the NHS was “not unsustainable”. The facts tell a different story. Hospitals are cancelling cancer operations because there are no intensive care beds for patients after surgery. Patients are being treated in ambulances stacked up outside A&E units because
there are no beds inside. A patient died in a parked ambulance outside A&E while waiting to be treated. Those patients actually in A&E are waiting for up to 50 hours for a bed. There are currently tens of thousands of new Covid cases and (as we go to print) an average between one and two hundred deaths daily, and in some hospitals one in five beds is occupied by a patient gravely unwell with the virus. Does all that really sound sustainable pressure, Health Secretary?

Now the NHS will receive additional billions from the controversial National Insurance rise and the autumn budget. But is it enough, is it for real, and will it be delivered to the areas where it is most needed? This government has thus far been brilliant at selling itself with snappy sound bites, particularly when extolling its apparent largesse. Chancellor Rishi Sunak called the added £5.9bn budget money “game-changing”, but this is no game; these are people’s lives. Sajid Javid said the funding was “new money”, but as ever it’s difficult to pin ministers down to precisely how that money will be divided and spent. They do say the extra £5.9bn will be used to pay for “physical infrastructure and equipment”, rather than day-to-day spending – perhaps that means those alleged 40 “new” hospitals, in reality mostly new wings or improvements to existing buildings? Some of the £12bn announced in September will go to resources such as staffing, but how much and when? More than five million people are waiting for NHS hospital treatment in England, with hundreds of thousands waiting for more than a year. There is a crisis in the recruitment of staff across the NHS, with too few doctors, nurses, midwives and paramedics. But recruitment is difficult when existing staff say that underfunding stops them from doing their job properly. These, clearly, are the areas that need to be addressed first. The alternative to this of course, is privatisation, claimed by many to be this
government’s real aim. But for companies and investors, privatisation means profit. And profit making brings no guarantee of better treatment.

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