We must take real action to save our health service, writes Catriona Ogilvy
New Year, old headlines: ‘NHS in winter crisis’.
Long waits, cancelled operations, queueing ambulances, and patients on trolleys. These stories have become the norm for the winter months, but this year feels different. The headlines tell stories of people dying while waiting hours for ambulances, nurses treating patients in hospital car parks, and of course, postponed elective operations for the entire month of January.
Our health service is at breaking point and the goodwill of hardworking National Health Service staff is running out.
The phrase ‘winter crisis’ is misleading. The health system is in a constant state of crisis, running at near to full capacity on a daily basis, with chronic staff shortages, and a lack of funding for social care and community services – all in the face of rising demand. It simply cannot cope with seasonal increases in demand.
In an unprecedented move, NHS bosses told hospitals to cancel tens of thousands of operations and outpatient appointments – a sticking plaster for the service’s problems. Last year the British Red Cross declared ‘a humanitarian crisis’, following which for the NHS missed all its main targets – including for accident and emergency, operations and cancer treatments. The NHS has lost 14,000 beds, 40% of walk-in centres have closed, and cuts to community services make supporting patients in their own home increasingly difficult.
This year the NHS will turn 70. Whether it will be fit for the 21st century and free at the point of access will depend upon the government’s commitment to tackling the issues of health and social care, and the political willingness on all sides to reach an agreement.
Jeremy Hunt, who came away from the reshuffle with an expanded brief as health and social care minister, has admitted to MPs that the NHS will need ‘significantly more funding’ over the next decade. Although this echoes the Office for Budget Responsibility analysis that the budget will need to rise by two per cent a year over next 50 years, the government’s current spending plans have health funding set to fall in real terms in 2018-19. Labour are right to demand more spending in response to the current crisis, but funding is not the only solution. We must ensure we have the right workforce, structures and community-based services to deliver care for our ageing population.
Integrating health and social care, moving services closer to home, supporting those with chronic and complex conditions outside of the hospital setting; preventing unnecessary hospital admission is the future of our NHS. But the system is at breaking point and its staff are exhausted. The time for talking must end. Real action and real solutions are needed to safeguard the future of the National Health Service.