The NHS faces mounting pressure as never before — a fact made startlingly clear in a recent poll of 99 Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) which found that nearly half of the NHS authorities intend to cut hospital beds over the next year, and a third plan to close A&E departments.
The vast majority of CCGs cited ‘lack of capital funding’ as the main factor that will lead to the failure of their future plans.
It has also been revealed that in order to cut back on costs and address a frightening staff shortage, hospitals will soon take on up to 2,000 untrained nurses — ‘nursing associates’ — to carry out critical tasks that are typically undertaken by qualified nurses, such as administering morphine, inserting tubes and monitoring heart rates.
The latest figures show that the NHS is desperately in need of more nurses — as many as one in 10 posts are vacant, equivalent to 23,500 full-time staff.
While those on the frontline of a fraying health service desperately cry out for more funding, prime minister Theresa May and health secretary Jeremy Hunt have vehemently denied that there are any NHS cash challenges in the first place.
May has repeatedly contended that the government plans to inject £10bn in the NHS budget — £2bn more than NHS England had asked for in negotiations last year.
But a scathing letter sent to chancellor Phillip Hammond by the health select committee — headed by the Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston — demanded that the government come clean about NHS funding and that the chancellor use his Autumn Statement to give the health service the cash it so desperately needs.
“The continued use of the figure of £10bn for the additional health spending up to 2020-21 is not only incorrect but risks giving a false impression that the NHS is awash with cash,” Wollaston wrote.
“This figure is often combined with a claim that the government ‘has given the NHS what it asked for’. Again this claim does not stand up to scrutiny as NHS England spending cannot be seen in isolation from other areas of health spending.”
The health select committee argued that the £10bn figure can only be reached by adding an extra year to the spending review period, changing the date from which the real terms increase is calculated and making extra cuts to other areas of the total health budget, which it believes amounts to a blatant fudging of the numbers.
The letter lambasted the government for swingeing cuts to both the public health budget and to social care which seriously impedes the NHS from successfully carrying out its Five Year Forward Review (5YFV).
It noted that the Care Quality Commission’s (CQC) latest State of Care report has found that the adult social care market is “approaching tipping point.” The CQC has said that the fragility of social care is now starting to have a palpable affect on NHS services as the ageing population grows and more and more people have long-term health conditions.
The effect has been a massive increase in A&E attendances, emergency admissions and delays to people leaving hospital, which in turn, the CQC notes “is affecting the ability of a growing number of trusts to meet their performance and financial targets”.
“Unless urgent action is taken to improve the state of social care and thus mitigate the effects on trusts which the CQC describes, the NHS cannot be expected to deliver the Five Year Forward Review,” Wollaston noted in the letter.
Chorus of criticism
The health select committee letter prompted a chorus of criticism of the government from across the political spectrum.
Yesterday (November 1) shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth demanded that Jeremy Hunt be honest about the state of NHS finances. Ashworth said that when asked the health secretary “refused to give an accurate account of the spending plans for the NHS” and “refused to admit that on his watch hospitals have been left in the worst financial crisis in a generation with unprecedented deficits of £2.45bn”.
Pointing to the letter sent from the health select committee, Ashworth argued that it raises “very serious questions about the claims that the government has been making.”
“Indeed the only way they could be discredited further is if they decided to slap them on the side of a bus and have the Foreign Secretary parade it around the country,” he added, referencing the infamous false NHS funding claim made by the Leave campaign during the EU referendum.
On behalf of Labour, Ashworth has now asked the independent UK Statistics Authority to officially investigateTheresa May’s £10bn NHS funding claim so that the public will know with certainty that government’s spin simply does not stack up.
Unite national officer for health Sarah Carpenter agreed that May’s funding claims were disingenuous and distracting from the escalating crisis now facing the NHS.
“Properly funding the NHS will not be accomplished by using the disgraceful accounting and PR tricks that Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt have continuously employed — frontline staff know it, MPs, even Conservative ones know it, and the public knows it too,” she said.
“The NHS is undeniably at breaking point and the only way it will have a sustainable future is by ensuring all aspects of health provision — including public health and social care — have the financial and staffing resources it so desperately needs,” Carpenter argued. “This means better workforce planning, more integration but above all this means cash.”
“Ahead of the Autumn Statement, we at Unite are calling on the government to stop burying their heads in the sand and to give the NHS the substantial capital funding it requires without undermining this funding by making cuts elsewhere in the health budget. We need action — not this perpetual false economy that’s making health workers’ jobs all but impossible and posing very real risks to patients’ lives.”