The continual failure of ministers to address the proper funding of the NHS is plunging the health service into a deep crisis – in the year that the NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary.
Unite, the country’s largest union which has 100,000 members in the health service, believes that the extra £350m earmarked in last November’s budget to tide the NHS over the winter is ‘woefully inadequate’.
The NHS celebrates its 70th birthday in July, but the government has put it in intensive care by failing to provide sufficient funding to secure the future of one of Britain’s greatest achievements.
The pitiful sums that chancellor Philip Hammond made available in the budget smacks of political revenge because NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens dared to speak out plainly about the scale of the financial crisis. If this is the case, it is a stain on Theresa May’s government.
The current crisis has seen an unprecedented number of health professionals speaking out – as they have a professional duty to do so – about the threat to patient care. It is the frontline professionals who are doing all they can to protect patients, not ministers.
While the media lasers in on what is happening in A&E departments up and down the country, it should not be forgotten there are also hidden pressures and factors contributing to the current imbroglio.
Community services and GPs are struggling to cope as well. The NHS in England is short of 42,000 nurses, midwives and therapists, according to Health Education England (HEE) last month which drafted the NHS’s first strategy in 25 years to grapple with chronic understaffing.
HEE, the NHS’s staffing agency, also warns that the health service workforce, which already stands at 1.4m, will need to increase by 190,000 by 2027 unless the rise in illness recedes.
There is a serious recruitment and retention crisis right across the health service which has been compounded by the austerity pay regime imposed since 2010 by the Tories. It is estimated that pay for NHS staff has declined by at least 14 per cent in real terms over the last eight years.
There is also the ever-accelerating privatisation of NHS services with handsome contracts awarded to private healthcare companies. This is money that should have remained within the NHS for patient services and not siphoned off to private healthcare shareholders.
The NHS Support Federation estimates, for example, that over the past seven years Virgin Care has been awarded contracts worth well over £2bn, with several large contracts in community health.
The health secretary Jeremy Hunt has apologised for the fact that thousands of routine operations will be delayed until the end of January because of the crisis, but much more is expected from a minister in post since 2012 whose job it is to anticipate such problems in advance.
Every winter the NHS comes under intense pressure – this is something that can be planned for, but ministers have spectacularly failed to rise to the challenge this year.
As speculation mounts that Hunt’s disastrous six year tenure as health secretary is about to end in a forthcoming cabinet reshuffle, that moment can’t come soon enough.
A new health secretary, with a generous spirit and open mind, is needed to reboot the NHS; give confidence to staff and patients; and fight the Treasury for a massive cash injection. Such a financial boost would be the best birthday present the NHS could receive.
This comment first appeared on politicshome.com on January 4.