On 4th January, Prime Minister Theresa May joined Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in issuing a hollow apology for the state of the NHS.
Even as she spoke news was emerging of an 81-year old Essex woman who died waiting for an ambulance which took four hours to arrive, and two deaths of older patients waiting to be seen in an overcrowded A&E in the West Midlands.
Nonetheless on 7th January May told Andrew Marr and viewers how “proud” she was of the government’s record on the NHS. In other words the apology was meaningless. There’s no point in apologising if she won’t end the real terms freeze on NHS funding, which - despite repeated warnings from NHS Providers, the NHS Confederation, the health unions and almost every NHS professional body - has been in place since George Osborne took office in 2010.
Since May’s apology almost 70 medical directors from struggling NHS trusts across England signed a joint letter to her expressing their concern that the NHS is now “severely and chronically underfunded”, with “insufficient hospital beds and staff of all disciplines” to cope with the rising caseload.
Almost eight brutal years of virtually frozen NHS funding and cuts in social care have reduced spending on health and the numbers of hospital beds to the lowest of any equivalent country - reducing front line health services in many areas to ‘third world’ conditions. Meanwhile cost pressures on the NHS have increased by up to 4% each year, and in addition the population has grown by 4 million - leaving our NHS with inadequate investment in staff and resources.
8,000 front line beds and 20% of mental health beds have closed. Eight years of below inflation pay settlements have left 100,000 vacant posts across the NHS. November’s belated Budget announcement of £350m extra came too late to put proper plans in place, and still leaves the NHS well short of the increased costs it faces. On 31st December more than half England’s hospitals had at least 95% of their beds full. Ambulances queue for hours to hand over seriously ill patients; corridors are frequently used as desperate, dangerous last resort areas for sometimes hundreds of patients to wait for treatment. NHS England has ordered a halt to elective surgery until at least the end of January. Even cancer treatment is feeling the strain, with missed targets and possible reductions in care.
Meanwhile cuts and privatisation have reduced social care to chaos, and billions are being wasted on a costly competitive ‘market’ which hands NHS contracts to profit-hungry companies like Virgin.
We don’t want apologies, we want changes: that’s why Health Campaigns Together, with the People’s Assembly, have called a day of action on 3rd February, with a demonstration in London and events all over England demanding:
» End the winter crisis with a cash injection to restore the NHS budget;
» commit to increased funding each year, at least 3% above inflation;
» end the cap on NHS pay;
» no cuts, closures, or privatisation.
The state of our health service affects us all - and Health Campaigns Together is proud to have won the support last year of over a dozen TUC unions and many other organisations and individuals for our massive 4th March demonstration in London.
We are again inviting all trade unionists and their families and friends to work with us in 2018. Unions and local branches are welcome to affiliate to Health Campaigns Together, distribute our quarterly newspaper, and work with us to build the biggest, broadest possible alliance to force the government to change course, or make way for a government that will.
We are planning big. 5th July 2018 is the 70th birthday of the NHS - and despite the problems we have outlined, we still have much to celebrate.
While its performance has deteriorated since 2010 as a result of the unprecedented squeeze on resources, the dedication and skills of over one million staff have managed against the odds to maintain remarkably high quality services for the majority of patients. But we must not underestimate the extent to which this is now put at risk by continued austerity cuts, the cap on NHS pay which has cut real terms salaries by over 16% since 2010, and plans for even more drastic measures to hold back spending.
We’re proud of, and grateful for, the NHS that has grown and developed since 1948 but we must not be simply celebrating in July - we will also be protesting at the spending freeze and the chaos and privatisation that have followed the Health & Social Care Act imposed in 2012.
Health Campaigns Together is committed to organising a major demonstration and event on 7th July, the Saturday closest to the NHS birthday. We hope Briefing readers and their families and friends will join us.
» For more details follow our website www.healthcampaignstogether.com and Twitter @nhscampaigns.
Co-ordinator, Health Campaigns Together