Both prime minister Theresa May and health secretary Jeremy Hunt apologised this week after announcing that all non-urgent operations – more than 50,000 – would be cancelled till the end of the month to ease pressure on the NHS as it faces its worst-ever winter crisis.
The move comes as figures reveal unprecedented ambulance delays – last week, nearly 17,000 people were stuck in an ambulance waiting to be admitted to A&E, with 4,700 people waiting at least an hour. The longest wait times stretched to four or five hours.
Bed occupancy is at worryingly high levels, with 91.7 per cent of beds occupied last week – well above the 85 per cent level considered safe.
And it has been reported that 24 out of 145 NHS acute hospital trusts and ambulance trusts declared a ‘black alert’, meaning beds were at 100 per cent capacity and patients would be taken to other hospitals.
There have also been a record number of calls to the free NHS helpline 111, with nearly half a million calls made in the week to December 31 – up 20 per cent on the previous week.
The prime minister responded today (January 4) by apologising to NHS patients for the tens of thousands of operations such as hip replacements which will now be delayed, but she insisted that the NHS was “better prepared for this winter than ever before” as the government put “record amounts of money” into the service.
‘Stain on the government’
But Unite head of health Sarah Carpenter argued that the prime minister was being disingenuous and accused the government of “failing to provide sufficient funding to secure the future of one of Britain’s greatest achievements.”
She slammed the £350m chancellor Philip Hammond made available to the NHS in November for the entire winter after NHS England boss Simon Stevens asked the government to make good on the Brexit campaigning pledge of £350m a week.
Carpenter said the move “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,” she added.
“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.”
‘Worse and worse’
Among those working on the frontlines is Unite rep Mark Boothroyd, an A&E nurse in London. While he says that the hospital where he works is one of the better funded and run hospitals, he and his colleagues have definitely felt the pressure this winter.
“There have been periods over the last few days when a definite panic has set in – there were queues out the door and we were struggling to keep up. That doesn’t often happen,” Boothroyd noted.
“It’s gotten worse and worse each winter. In previous years, there would be a bit of a lull in the summer time but now it’s just as busy as any time of the year, which makes the winter periods worse.
“Now doctors run around trying to figure out how they can create space and who they can discharge to make room for more. That didn’t used to happen.”
As a nurse who qualified nine years ago, Boothroyd fears most the impending collapse of the service that’s suffering a major nursing recruitment and retention crisis. He highlights statistics showing 40 to 60 per cent of nurses retiring in the next decade, and tens of thousands of unfilled vacancies.
“There’s no give in the system,” he warned. “There are literally no more nurses to meet growing demand – you can’t just instantly produce more nurses.”
He slammed May’s recent comments saying that the service was prepared for the winter as “completely untrue”.
“She says over and over that there’s extra funding – but where is it? We don’t see it on the frontlines.”
Dr David Wrigley, a GP in North Lancashire, who serves as chair of Unite’s Medical Practitioners Union, has also felt the winter pressure.
“The pressures on the staff and the NHS itself this winter is immense and the worst many have known for decades. Patients are being treated in corridors and some on hospital floors even and this is totally unacceptable.
“Theresa May says there is no crisis but she needs to go and see how bad things are on the ground rather than speak from the comfort of 10 Downing St,” he added.
“This crisis is due to the abject failure of this government over many years for not funding the NHS adequately and they should be held to account for the pain and suffering they have brought upon our patients.”
Unite’s Sarah Carpenter went on to call for a new health secretary with a new vision for the NHS.
“As speculation mounts that Jeremy 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,” she said.
“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, Carpenter said, would be — on the eve of the health service’s 70th birthday — “the best birthday present the NHS could receive.”