The Telegraph has long been known as one of the Tory papers most eager to attack, and even propose the abolition of the NHS. Back in April former Torygraph editor Charles Moore blamed the NHS rather than Covid or the government’s inept handling of it for the first lockdown (“The inflexibility of our lumbering NHS is why the country has had to shut down”).
“Planet Normal” is a weekly podcast by columnists from the Daily Telegraph – and as you might expect, their notion of “normal” is a planet entirely populated by opinionated right wing ideologues, who regard Covid-19 as a “phoney pandemic,” and have little but contempt for the NHS and official information from it and about it.
In the latest instalment they complain that “the feared deluge of coronavirus hasn’t materialised,” and merrily misinterpret research from the Health Foundation that shows how far the NHS as we know it was overwhelmed by the first surge of Covid-19.
Since the pandemic struck, numbers of routine NHS operations – such as hip, knee and cataract surgery – are down by over a third compared with 2019. Numbers waiting over a year for operations have massively increased.
This information is not new, and by no means exclusively revealed by hacks hostile to the NHS. The Lowdown, trade unions and campaigners have noted the problem and pressed the need for additional funding, staff and beds to enable the NHS to handle the pandemic, winter pressures AND the normal burden of emergencies and elective treatment.
Macmillan Cancer Support has warned that 50,000 people across Britain now have undiagnosed cancers because of Covid-related disruptions and delays to NHS diagnostics and referrals during the March-to-July lockdown, while another 33,000 existing cancer patients are still waiting on potentially life-saving treatments delayed due to Covid.
But while “Planet Normal” eagerly flags up the failures, they are unwilling to identify the reasons, or call for government action to redress them.
So the fact that the Nightingale Hospitals, assembled at a cost of over £200m have barely been used is mentioned: but the fact that the NHS lacks the staff required to run them (and to maintain normal levels of non-Covid treatment alongside dealing with the all too real pandemic) is not.
The failure of the costly privatised test and trace system, allowing the virus to spread is ignored, as is the pitifully inadequate level of statutory sick pay which has meant large numbers of low paid workers have been unable to afford to self-isolate.
Planet Normal question the scale – even the existence – of the Covid pandemic, quoting not epidemiologists or experts, but right wing back benchers:
“as national lockdown was reinstated earlier this month, fresh claims the NHS would be overrun were rejected by rebel Conservative MPs, who managed to establish that official projections of 4,000 Covid deaths a day by Christmas were wrong.”
Indeed Boris Johnson’s team did get the upper estimate of the projections through to Christmas wrong, and have revised the figure: but the worrying core projection, of a daily death toll rising to 1,000 by December was reaffirmed – and by Nov 17 the daily total had almost hit 600. It appears this figure – equivalent to three major air crashes per day – is deemed acceptable on Planet Normal.
A right wing NHS consultant named only as “Anthony,” who clearly lives on another planet of his own, and not in the north of England (where proper newspapers now report “Covid patients toe to toe” in packed A&E departments), is quoted complaining that:
Parliament was “deliberately misled” because “MPs were told the NHS was close to collapse, when briefings to hospital managers showed it certainly was not”.
Anthony clearly doesn’t read the BMJ, which by the end of October, as the fresh lockdown became increasingly inevitable, reported primary care and hospital services were under strain:
“GPs in areas of England under the tier 3 covid-19 restrictions have said their workloads reached levels in early October that they would not normally see before the end of November, and they are worried how the NHS will cope this winter. At the same time some hospitals in these areas are admitting similar numbers of covid-19 patients as they were at the height of the first wave of the pandemic.”
Exactly why the Johnson government or NHS England should wilfully lie about this and deceive the public – in what seems the most pointless-ever conspiracy, to undermine their own credibility by showing the NHS to be under-resourced and overwhelmed – is not explained.
So on the planet the rest of us inhabit, people who really care about the NHS and want to save lives rather than belittle the death toll have been pushing for government action – in increased funding to tackle the resource constraints of the NHS. The BMA has been pushing since September for extra investment in the NHS to be included in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s forthcoming spending review.
And after months in which almost all of the tens of billions of “extra” spending on health have been funnelled into private Test and Trace contractors, dodgy PPE contracts and private hospitals, NHS Providers and the NHS Confederation, representing trusts and commissioners, have also submitted strong arguments for substantial additional investment … in the NHS itself.
NHS Providers CEO Chris Hopson sums up that there are “five issues related to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and promises made in the 2019 Conservative manifesto on which the government will need to make progress”:
- Promises which will need funding this year and into the future include “40 new hospitals,” 50,000 more nurses and 6,000 more doctors – meaning “training budgets will have to rise”.
- The NHS will also need “more money for diagnostic procedures and elective surgery, as well as more hospital beds” to tackle the backlogs in planned care.
- The pandemic has also led to an increased demand for mental health services, requiring increased capacity,
- and exposed funding pressures on ambulances.
- Social care needs to be supported with appropriate funding to ensure services remain operational in the near future, and “to avoid hospitals filling up with medically fit patients whose beds are needed by others”, the funding to support trusts and local authorities to safely discharge patients should be renewed.
The announcement – as this issue of Lowdown goes online – that the NHS is to be allocated an extra £3 billion in the spending review seems to indicate that Mr Sunak feels unable to ignore the appeals from leaders of the NHS – but is also unwilling to break from the aliens from Planet Normal.
£3bn, if it is genuinely extra money above the allocations set in law earlier this year, is a useful down-payment, but nowhere near enough to compensate for the last decade of frozen real terms spending.
It might just be enough to avoid a ‘perfect storm’ of winter pressures, pandemic and delayed treatment (which would create a crisis even the Telegraph’s readers couldn’t ignore) – but it’s not enough to tackle the long term shortages of staff, beds and backlog maintenance to restore performance levels David Cameron’s government inherited in 2010.
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