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Is it too late to save the NHS?

The crisis seems part of the plan

PHOTO: © WENDY NOWAK

The National Health Service has never been in worse health. Each day brings further reports of another crisis in a crumbling system moving ever closer to collapse. Patients being treated in ambulances lined up outside emergency units, or marooned for hours on trolleys in hospital corridors because there are no available beds, would once have been unthinkable, but is now commonplace. More than ten NHS trusts have declared critical incidents, meaning normal services are scaled back, with some non-urgent procedures postponed indefinitely. Bosses at the British Medical Association, the Society for Acute Medicine and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, report that exhausted staff are desperately trying to keep up with demand. But how can they possibly cope when, according to Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, the ongoing crisis is fuelled, in part at least, by the long-term issue of more than 130,000 NHS vacancies? And among all the numbers and statistics to emerge as the situation plunges deeper into chaos, the most distressing must be the claim from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) that between 300 and 500 people are dying each week as a result of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care. RCEM vice president, Ian Higginson warned against any attempt to “discredit” the figure, saying that despite claims from some that these deaths are due to Covid or flu, or for various other reasons, this was not the case. He said: “If you’re at the front line, you know that this is a longstanding problem, this isn’t a short-term thing. The sort of things we’re seeing happen every winter, and it still seems to come as a surprise to the NHS.”

More than ten NHS trusts have declared critical incidents, meaning normal services are scaled back

Public support has remained strong for pay increase strike action taken by staff from almost every area of the health sector – including nurses, junior doctors, midwives, paramedics, call handlers and medical technicians. Meanwhile prime minister Rishi Sunak and health secretary Steve Barclay persist with the argument that they are following the recommendations of the independent pay review body. But those recommendations were made in July of last year, before energy bills rocketed and the cost-of-living crisis peaked. The so-called “independence” of the pay review body has also been called into question, with the chair of the group as well as other members, appointed by the prime minister or secretary of state. Added to this, the health secretary has conceded that ministers are not obliged to accept pay review body recommendations as they are not legally binding. Barclay further incensed union leaders when he told them that any pay increases would have to involve greater “productivity and efficiency” from staff. Unite Union boss, Onay Kasab branded Barclay’s comments as “an insult,” and added, “People are well beyond their contracted hours anyway, just to get the job done as they care so much.” Kasab’s comments are backed up by a Royal College of Nursing employment survey showing that most members work well beyond their contracted hours every week.

So, what next for the NHS? At the height of the Covid pandemic, Rishi Sunak stood in Downing Street alongside then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, applauding and cheering our nurses. They were the heroes of the nation. Now, while exhausted doctors and nurses are seen breaking down in tears in hospital car parks after losing lives that could have been saved during their shift, the applause has stopped and is replaced mostly by government silence and a refusal to budge. This from the sixth richest nation on the planet. Sunak does not even acknowledge that there’s a crisis but has stated that he and his government remain prepared to talk to union leaders, though not about pay increases. At the same time the prime minister has reluctantly admitted that he personally has used private healthcare – although he is registered with a GP. Conservatives have long been accused of wanting the total privatisation of the health service, and the mounting evidence for precisely such a plan might be considered conclusive. So is this it? Is it already too late? Are we witnessing the final, excruciatingly painful death throes of the NHS?

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