England’s National Health Service is at breaking point. How has it come to this?
I shall first start with a disclaimer with regards to bias. Whilst I have established that I have a Social-Democratic standpoint I hope I have been able to be balanced in my approach to issues. However with regards to the NHS I am of the firm and unyielding belief that the Tory Party has never had the interests of the Service at heart and wish it to be destroyed. This is largely to do with my personal experience with the NHS, which I may explore at a future time, as it was the catalyst which lead me to join the Labour Party. Thus, this article will contain what may be perceived as heavy anti-Tory bias. On to the main article:
The National Health Service is a beautiful thing. For those readers who are not UK citizens and therefore not equated with this grand institution, let me give a brief overview of the NHS. The NHS is the child of the Labour Government of 1945, which ousted the Churchill Conservative-lead wartime coalition. During the election the Labour Party stood on a platform of common endeavour and a shared, equal society. A central pillar of this manifesto was the creation of a National Health Service which would guarantee that, according to Labour’s manifesto: ‘the best health services should be available free for all. Money must no longer be the passport to the best treatment.’ As a result of that, and the slogan ‘Let us face the future’, Labour won the election with 145 seat majority, having swung the vote by 12% from Churchill’s Conservatives – the greatest swing in any British election to date.
Therefore, although the nation at the time was broke, having seen itself through the Second World War, with the power of the State and the support of the People behind it, the Labour Government and their fiery passionate Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, passed the National Health Service Act of 1946, which established NHS England 2 years later. A country which was on the verge of bankruptcy managed to purchase a nation’s worth of hospitals, pharmacies and surgeries and provide healthcare, free at the point of use, for every English citizen, funded through taxation rather than crippling insurance premiums. The NHS would come to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland under separate acts.
So it has been the case that every child born since 1948 has received free healthcare (with the exception of nominal charges for prescriptions, dentistry and opticians which were introduced for adults after 1951) simply as a right as a citizen. It has saved numerous lives, including my own and enriched the living of an entire nation. And yet this titan of social well-being and a shining testament to socialist achievement which was described by one Conservative Minister, Nigel Lawson as “the closest thing the English have to a religion” is on the verge of total collapse. In recent days headlines have revealed that; 25% of all patients waited for 4 hours or longer in A&E, with only one hospital hitting the 95% target; 485 patients waited longer than 12 hours for treatment; 94.7% of all NHS beds were full, hugely over the recommended limit of 85%; in Sheffield a man died in an ambulance waiting for over 2 and a half hours at the hospital doors because there was not enough room for him. The District Hospital in my own city has been at breaking point, on one day over 15 ambulances were queued with patients for admission, whilst almost 20 patients were on trolleys inside awaiting treatment – with one patient left for 15 hours. The Red Cross have even had to intervene in some regions and hospitals make clear that they are on the verge of total chaos. How can the 6th richest nation on Earth allow such mistakes? The answer is simple – this is not accidental but the culmination of either negligent or wilfully destructive behaviour on behalf of the Government.
Ever since the 1970’s, the Tories have had a death-wish for the NHS – it is a system which spits in the face of their core beliefs, namely private enterprise and small government. Under Thatcher, the NHS was woefully underfunded, hospitals were made to compete with each other for resources under a newly introduced internal market and Health Secretary Norman Fowler was portrayed in the satirical programme Spitting Image as a vampiric murderer who preyed on innocent hospitals in the night. A draft document even suggested plans to scrap the NHS entirely, in favour of a private insurance system but luckily, this never came to pass. The Labour Government of 1997 restored the NHS to its prime condition but in 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition began the process of tearing apart the service. The administration of David Cameron, first under Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and continued currently under Jeremy Hunt, began this process when the Health and Social Care Act  was passed which was seen by organisations such as the British Medical Association as a way to open a backdoor for NHS privatisation by widening scope for the awarding of contracts to private medical businesses and further increasing marketisation whilst unnecessarily reforming leadership structures which caused chaos within the service.
The Health and Social Care Act was only the start of the blows that the Conservatives would land against the NHS. In March 2014 Hunt rejected the recommended annual 1% pay rise to around 55% of non-medical NHS staff but in the April of the following year it was revealed that hospital bosses had received average pay-rises of 6% – to the tune of £35 million. After the election, in which the Conservative Party, won an unexpected slim majority in the Commons, Hunt became the honoured subject of the first petition on Parliament’s website to reach 100,000 petitions, which supposedly meant that it had to be discussed in Parliament. The petition had called for his immediate resignation – over 339,000 signatures had been recorded by August 2015. Immediately after the election too came two policies which would cause untold problems. First, was the 7-day NHS policy, in which full cover would be provided by hospitals at weekends, despite existing staff, funding and management pressures, on the basis that lack of weekend cover caused 6,000 deaths, a figure which later emerged to have come from an unpublished and unreviewed paper. His dramatic language with regards to weekend cover caused what has been dubbed the Hunt Effect in which hospital admissions increased on Mondays as Hunt’s misrepresentation of weekend services made people afraid to seek medical advice.
Even worse, Hunt also is responsible for the collapse of morale within the ranks of the Junior Doctor’s, the core workforce of the NHS. As well as trying to remove the opt-out for non-emergency work for doctors at weekends, in September 2015, Hunt announced too that Junior Doctors in the NHS would have their standard pay increased, on the basis that they would lose additional pay for so-called, ‘unsociable hours’meaning that, according to the BMA, some doctors would receive an effective pay-cut of 30%. Rather than compromise in the face of overwhelming opposition from the medical community, Hunt pressed on, which forced, in November 2015, for the BMA to vote for industrial action, approved by 98% of members, for industrial action – the first time since the 1970’s.
After two days of industrial action, IPSOS MORI, the pollster found that over 60% of people believed the Government was to blame for the crisis and that they supported the Junior Doctors whilst YouGov found Hunt to have the lowest approval ratings of any British politician at -48%. And yet despite this clear sign that the Health Secretary and his policies were hated, he not only clung on to his Right Honourable Office but announced that he would unilaterally impose the despised contract, which since the announcement is coming under review from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, condemned by the Royal College of Physicians and slammed by the British Medical Journal.
This catalogue of failures is astounding, even by Conservative Party standards, but I have barely mentioned the de-funding of the NHS and social-care system by billions of pounds; the cutting of nurses bursaries; a threat to General Practitioners to open longer hours or face their funding being cut; and the opening up of the NHS to private contracts from businesses such as VirginCare, which should have no, and I repeat absolutely no place in the healthcare system built by the stalwarts of the Labour Party. The NHS is not a mechanism for already rich men to stuff their pockets. It is the service created to ensure the health of every man, woman and child in the UK, but, at present, in the face of a flurry of hospitals declaring major incidents, a complete denial of the Government of an issue and the policies which it continues which are tearing the service to shreds, it seems as if it may not be there for the future, as it was for me.
I have focused rather a lot on the policies of Jeremy Hunt in this article, but I could also have mentioned the under-funding, marketisation and collapse of the social care system which have added additional pressures. If requested, I may explore these issues in the future. I would like to apologise for the quality and flow of the writing. As this was being written I didn’t truly know where it would end and due to my return to College as well as the subject matter, I found it quite difficult to write. I will ensure writing quality is improved in the future.