Read all about it! Chronic understaffing is putting lives at risk in the NHS. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence ( NICE) believes there should be one nurse per eight patients, but we have a shortage of 20,000 nurses. And nowadays with anti-migrant feelings so high, importing nurses is, well, politically tricky. Staff cuts are being imposed but 44% of hospital trusts face the worst financial outlook for a decade. Around 800,000 people turned up at A&E departments last year, some because they could not get GP appointments. Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of GPs warns her sector is ‘teetering n the brink of collapse.’ Bed shortages are creating untold humiliation and desolation. The King’s Fund, a politically neutral health think tank, is persuaded that by 2015-2016, money could run out in the NHS. Whistleblowers are still not heard and often punished for speaking out. New research has found demoralisation among staff. One in four of those questioned claimed they have been bullied and harassed. Infection risks are still high in clinics and hospitals. Maternity wards are under severe pressure. Early cancer diagnoses vary dramatically between areas, which means different outcomes too, obviously. A survey by the Royal College of GPs found that the majority of practitioners fear they might miss life threatening conditions because of their impossible workloads. All this has been gleaned from newspapers over the last week or so. Enough to make us all sick.
But two questions need to be considered before the middle classes give up and turn to private health insurance: Is this deluge of bad news part of an ideological war between the centre left and centre right? Do politicians have a vested interest in making people think the NHS is in terminal decline? The answer is yes to both questions. The service is being suffocated by lack of adequate funding, poor management and endless restructuring but most of all by cynical politicking. Expect to hear more rows this week as the Tories and Labour accuse each other of failing to stop the decline.
For the right, the NHS, now under Jeremy Hunt, faithful friend of business, is a statist monopoly, Soviet style, which must be broken up and sold off. They call this ‘progressive marketisation’. ( See, for example, Sean Worth on the website of the right wing think tank, Policy Exchange). To talk down the NHS eases this process by persuading people that privatisation is the only way to secure health care for our population in the future. Newspaper editors who lean that way are banner bearers of this destructive option. They ask if a ‘monolithic system’ is efficient and suitable for our times. Or praise in order to condemn: ‘ The NHS was founded, founded as a noble experiment in compassion. The principle of care from cradle to grave, free at the point of delivery was as revolutionary as it was fair. But society has changed enormously since 1948’. Yes, we aren’t recovering from a world war and are economically stronger than the creators of the service would ever have envisaged.
The left, meanwhile, Labour mainly, repeatedly uses the NHS as a club with which to beat the Tories. So much so, that the club is now cracking and breaking. This week we will get more of Milliband and Andy Burnham going on the offensive. Why don’t they ever defend the extraordinary achievements and resilience of the NHS, the staff and its purpose? I know the opposition must criticise government policies. But they need to stay balanced, speak with integrity and defend what is easily defensible. A new play, This May Hurt a Bit, does just that with such feeling, audiences weep, for they know there are truths in this dramatisation that rarely are told anywhere else these days. It is by the renowned director Max Stafford-Clarke and his wife, Stella Feehily. He had a stroke in 2006, and this is the story of how nurses and doctors helped him to recover movement, hope and will. It is a thank you note, on stage. Danny Doyle’s homage to our NHS in his Olympic spectacular did the same. Nurses and doctors full of vim, danced and sang, celebrated the best of British idealism and energy. I hope we never forget that.
Many readers ask me if I ever feel patriotic. Yes. I did when maternity units kept alive my babies during difficult births, when hospital A&E departments saved my life ( I am an asthmatic and nearly died of three times), when doctors and nurses made my mother comfortable and content as she was dying, when doctors patiently tested my daughter over several months to diagnose a health problem and do every time I go to the GP or hospital. True, the waiting times are sometimes unbearably long, you don’t have your own GP any more, some receptionists are rude and nurses seem indifferent at times. But the service still looks after millions of patients. So whatever your gripes, contact your MPs and tell them how much you value it. Do it or all too soon we will be like the US, where good health is a privilege not a human right. And shareholders will own our precious NHS.
The Independent, 12/5/2014