Every winter, our NHS faces additional pressures as flu and other seasonal viruses and illnesses spike, leading to a rise in ambulance callouts, hospital admissions and GP appointments across the country, not just in Bradford. But this winter will be unlike any other for our NHS as the 12 years of cuts and underfunding made by this Conservative Government take a brutal toll and degrade our NHS’s ability to cope.
Nowhere can these cuts and underfunding be seen more clearly than in our NHS’s troubled workforce, with shortages now reaching unprecedented levels. Indeed, the latest figures reveal that there are now more than 133,000 vacancies in England alone, with almost 50,000 posts, more than 1 in 3 of all NHS vacancies, amongst nursing staff alone. At any time of the year, this is simply unsustainable, but as we head deeper into the winter and the challenges that these colder months bring, it will sadly prove to be deadly for many of Bradford’s residents.
We are already seeing the impact of the staffing crisis in the waiting times at A&E Departments which is the frontline of the frontline in our NHS. Nationally, over 30% of patients are waiting longer than the four-hour target to be admitted, transferred or discharged, and whilst this record is better in Bradford, we are only marginally better off with 28% of people still waiting more than four hours.
When we see staff overstretched, overworked, overstressed and underpaid, it’s no wonder why we’re seeing a recruitment and retention crisis in our NHS, and it’s no wonder why we’re now seeing nurses take unprecedented action. I know that this is not a decision that any member of our NHS takes lightly as healthcare is their passion and their calling, but amidst a rising cost of living crisis for everyone, they feel the need to protect their incomes, terms and conditions, and rightly feel the need to protest against the misery inflicted upon our NHS by this Conservative Government.
The picture away from hospitals and in our GP practices is little better. According to the Government’s own figures, Bradford East ranks as the top constituency for the number of GP appointments, with over 111,000 appointments held in the last year. Yet whilst having more appointments available may seem like something to celebrate, the reality is far different, as the sheer demand for appointments betrays the dire state of health inequalities in Bradford’s deprived, disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
People should be able to see their GP when they need to, but they shouldn’t need to keep going back time and time again. They also should be seen when they need to be seen, but 1 in 20 of these appointments in Bradford East saw patients waiting four weeks or more to see their doctor. To have to wait so long to get help only serves to embed health inequalities further and push problems upstream into hospitals and A&E Departments as conditions that would have been easily treatable progress and become more difficult to treat. This not only costs more time and money for the NHS than if the patient could have been treated by a GP, but costs people their health and livelihoods too.
Yet rather than pumping much-needed money into recruiting and retaining GPs for areas like Bradford where we face one of the greatest divides between the number of GPs and the number of registered patients, with fewer doctors to treat more people, all the Government can do is set an absurd two-week waiting target. Anyone in a position where they’re calling their GP for an appointment can’t wait two weeks, they should be seen within days, and the fact that the Government thinks this is a solution, not filling the shortage of almost 5,000 GPs nationally, shows just how out of touch they are with people who unlike many members of this Government, can’t afford their own private healthcare.
The challenge of undoing the damage caused to our NHS after 12 years of a Conservative Government will not be easy, but we cannot begin to fix our health service without first ensuring that we have the people to staff it. That’s why I’m backing plans to close tax loopholes that see over 40,000 of the country’s richest people use non-dom status to avoid paying £3.2 billion worth of tax in this country, and use these tax receipts to double the number of medical school places, double the number of district nurses qualifying each year, and train another 10,000 nurses and midwives. Ultimately, more pressure at winter may be inevitable for any health service, but the crisis that our NHS is facing isn’t.