In a symbolic victory, a Labour motion was passed yesterday (January 10) demanding that the government provide extra funding to tackle the winter crisis now engulfing the NHS.
The Opposition Day motion passed without a vote after Tory MPs were told to abstain.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth, leading the debate, slammed the Tory-led government for its failure to adequately prepare for the winter. He dismissed the extra £337m the government provided to the NHS for the winter as too little, too late — it wasn’t approved until the November budget and many trusts didn’t see their funding allocation until well into December.
Ashworth laid the blame for the health service’s woes squarely on the shoulders of the government.
‘Crisis manufactured by government’
“This is not just a winter crisis. This is an all-year round funding crisis, a year-round staffing crisis, a year-round social care crisis, a year-round health inequality crisis – manufactured in Downing Street by this government,” he said.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt stood defensive against the onslaught from Labour during the debate but even he ultimately agreed the NHS would need “significantly more funding.”
“We need to build a national consensus as to how we are going to find that funding,” Hunt said. “And my own view is that we should try and do that for a 10-year period, not a five-year period.”
Ashworth argued that Hunt had lost all credibility in the eyes of health staff and patients alike — and he slammed the health secretary for clinging on to his job after it was reported prime minister Theresa May had planned to change his role in the cabinet.
“Isn’t the truth that doctors and nurses have lost confidence in him, patients have lost confidence in him, the prime minister it seems has lost confidence in him?” Ashworth said. “He fights for his own job but he won’t fight for the NHS.”
“Our patients are crying out for change and they will look at the health secretary still in post today and see – to coin a phrase – nothing has changed, nothing has changed.”
Labour MPs during the debate told harrowing stories from their constituencies of patients who’ve faced a health service this winter at full capacity.
“I’ve heard stories from local hospitals in recent days which include six patients squeezed into four bed bays, with no curtains and no dignity as a result, no lockers and no bells,” said Labour MP Paula Sherriff.
“They’re actually being given hand bells or told to ask the patient next to them to ring the bell should there be an emergency.”
Labour MP Stephanie Peacock said that in her constituency in Barnsley, both general and acute bed capacity reached 100 per cent on December 31 – dangerously above the level considered safe, which is 85 per cent.
And Ashworth told the story of an 80-year-old epileptic man with severe dementia who was stuck on a trolley for 36 hours waiting to be treated at the Royal Stoke Hospital.
Although yesterday’s successful motion is not legally binding, the Labour victory adds fuel to the growing national consensus that the NHS needs significant additional investment.
The motion followed a contentious PMQs yesterday (January 10), when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn grilled the prime minister over the NHS winter crisis.
“[Theresa May] told the house the NHS was better prepared for winter than ever before,” Corbyn said at PMQs. “So what words of comfort does the prime minister have to the 17,000 patients waiting in the back of ambulances in the last week of December. Is it that nothing is perfect, by any chance?”
The public outcry for more health service funding comes as every day more and more stories and new figures show the scale of the winter crisis the NHS is facing.
Yesterday (January 10) it was revealed that an NHS cancer hospital may have to make many patients wait to receive live-saving chemotherapy treatment — a move that’s been said to be unprecedented in cancer care.
Chemotherapy lead of Churchill hospital in Oxford, Dr Andrew Weaver, sent a memo last week to specialists at the hospital, warning that a shortage of cancer nurses who administer chemotherapy would lead to delays.
“Currently we are down approximately 40 per cent on the establishment of nurses on DTU [daily treatment unit] and as a consequence we are having to delay chemotherapy patients’ starting times to four weeks,” the leaked memo read.
Dr Weaver wrote that “limited numbers of staff is unsustainable in the short, medium and long-term”, adding that he did not see the staffing situation improving for another 18 to 24 months.
And new figures published today (January 11) showed that the level of A&E patients being treated within the four-hour target had reached its lowest level ever.
Unite national officer for health Sarah Carpenter added to the calls for more NHS funding as the service – and staff whose herculean efforts keep it running – reach breaking point.
“NHS staff are working tirelessly to care for patients and deliver the best service possible in some of the most trying conditions for a generation,” she said.
“Overworked and overstressed, it is their dedication and commitment which is stopping the developing crisis from turning into a catastrophe. The warm words and platitudes of Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May towards NHS workers will not solve the deep seated problems that have been caused by their heartless incompetence.”
“The government needs to listen to health workers and provide the proper funding needed to ensure the NHS continues to deliver the care patients and their loved ones expect,” Carpenter added.
“A failure to do so will see the exodus of highly skilled staff leaving the NHS quicken and the service lurch from one crisis to another with patient care dangerously damaged.”