“The NHS belongs to the people. It is there to improve our health and wellbeing, supporting us to keep mentally and physically well, to get better when we are ill and, when we cannot fully recover, to stay as well as we can to the end of our lives.” Those are the very first few lines of the NHS Constitution setting out the contract between the NHS and the British people, yet under this Conservative Government, 75 years after the foundation of our NHS, we are seeing this constitutional contract being broken with devastating consequences.
Throughout the last 13 years, we have witnessed waiting times skyrocket and care standards plummet as our NHS is starved of the funding that it needs by Ministers, as healthcare and support staff are pushed to the brink by increasing workloads and little improvement in pay, and as the private sector increasingly worms its way into what should be a public service, provided by a public body, for the public good. But it is in recent months in particular that the stresses and strains, and indeed the near collapse of our health service has become most apparent.
Amongst countless stories told to me by my constituents, just this week we have heard of one woman in Bradford who was left waiting for 26 hours in A&E, whilst in Liverpool, a 92-year-old woman was left waiting on a trolley in a hospital corridor for 33 hours, left in a situation so bad that she asked her family to let her die. Although they are extremes, these cases sadly aren’t just isolated. At the end of last year, over 3,000 people, equivalent to 1 in 3 cases, were left waiting in A&E in Bradford for longer than the four-hour target that is crucial to meet in the fight to save lives and protect people’s health, and what’s more, the target has been missed for 7 out of the last 12 years.
Whilst additional pressures on our NHS are inevitable in the winter as viruses circulate in the cold weather, missed waiting times, patients not being seen and ambulances backed up down the street are not inevitable, and in one of the world’s richest countries, this isn’t just simply not good enough, it is shameful and it is barbaric for the Government to continue to let it happen.
However, rather than prioritising the recruitment of more staff or supporting our NHS with much-needed additional funding, the Government is instead pursuing a new drive of spending cuts and outrageous threats against the very same healthcare workers that we thanked and clapped throughout the Coronavirus Pandemic when they put their own health on the line to help us all. It therefore couldn’t be clearer that Ministers have no answer for how to fix the crisis that our NHS is in on their watch.
Instead of taking action to address the recruitment and retention crisis amongst healthcare staff, particularly nurses who are woefully overworked and badly underpaid, the Government this week tabled legislation that would see nurses fired for taking action not just to defend their pay, terms and conditions, but to take a stand against the vandalism of our NHS by this Government. In arguing that this legislation is necessary, the Government tell us that they want to see “minimum service levels” on strike days to protect patients, but the sad reality is that this very same Government have left our NHS in such a state that they are unable to ensure a minimum service even on non-strike days, with emergency patients waiting hours for an ambulance to turn up, and an even longer wait to be admitted.
The crisis facing our NHS also extends beyond hospital and emergency healthcare to GPs and dentists too, particularly in Bradford where it’s near impossible for us to even be able to find an NHS dentist and just as difficult for us to get an appointment with our doctor within the same week. However, given that Bradford has one of the worst patient-to-GP ratios in the country with fewer doctors looking after more people because the Government have failed to invest in our primary care services, and has some of the worst health inequalities because of underfunded public health programmes, it isn’t difficult to see why our challenges in accessing healthcare are especially grave.
With our NHS facing a crisis on a scale unseen throughout its 75-year history, we need a Government that understands first-hand the challenges that it faces, but given that the current Prime Minister seems unable to tell us whether he and his family make use of private healthcare and whether he faces the same problems in being able to see a doctor or a dentist, it’s clear that he and his Government are not the ones who are able to lead us through this emergency. Instead, we need a Labour Government that can our NHS before it’s too late.