Responding to the desperate situation in the NHS, the Prime Minister announced in his first major speech of 2023 that cutting waiting lists was one of his key pledges. However, these pledges on the NHS are not new – he was re-iterating those already made in the NHS’s elective recovery plan published last year, including making sure the waiting list was falling by 2024.
A day earlier his spokesperson denied there was a crisis in the NHS and asserted that the NHS is getting all the funding it needs, prompting leading NHS professionals to accuse the government of being ‘delusional’ about the state of the NHS.
A spokesperson for the government deflected the blame by saying: “This is certainly an unprecedented challenge for the NHS, brought about by a number of factors, most significantly the global pandemic.” adding, “We are confident we are providing the NHS with the funding it needs, as we did throughout the pandemic, to deal with these issues.”
Dr Vishal Sharma, the chair of the consultants committee at the British Medical Association (BMA), which represents most of Britain’s doctors, said:
“For staff working in the NHS or any patients desperately trying to access care, No 10’s refusal to admit that the NHS is in crisis will seem simply delusional. To try to reassure us that ministers are confident the NHS has all the funding it needs, at a time when families are seeing relatives left in pain at home or on trolleys in hospital, is taking the public for fools.”
The cause of the crisis, according to the government, is the covid-19 pandemic and high flu infections, which Dr Sharma points out is trying to “rewrite history”, and asserted that this winter’s crisis is the result of more than a decade of political choices to reduce investment in the NHS and its workforce.
In a letter to Sunak from the RCN in reply to Sunak’s speech, Pat Cullen, General Secretary of the RCN, dismisses Sunak’s NHS pledges as “false promises” and “hollow boasts”, noting what is needed is practical and urgent measures. She wrote that the PM’s language appeared “detached from the reality of what is happening and why”.
Even before this latest government denial of a crisis, anger had been building against Sunak and the Health & Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay due to their silence on the escalating crisis and strikes, and the government’s lack of engagement with the organisations that represent NHS staff, including the RCN and the BMA.
In recent weeks, experts have warned that the delays in providing timely emergency care could be causing 300 to 500 deaths per week, over a dozen NHS trusts have reported critical incidents, and due to long waits outside of A&E, ambulances are running out of oxygen.
The BMA has warned that the situation is “intolerable and unsustainable, both for our patients and the hard-working staff desperately trying to keep up with incredibly high levels of demand.”
NHS workers are increasingly taking to social media to describe the appalling conditions patients are having to endure and staff are having to work in. Many of these workers have remained anonymous, but the Guardian has now published harrowing comments from named staff.
NHS staff speak of “coming close to tears”, “apologising to patients” and that it’s no longer “people will die” due to the situation, but “people are dying.” Will, a paramedic, told the Guardian of attending a lady who had been waiting 18 hours for an ambulance.
“She was saturated in her own urine and faeces. Confused, scared and septic. She was 63 and normally well. This could be you. Time to declare a critical incident; this is a humanitarian crisis.”
In contrast, Barclay’s social media has been full of boasts about the NHS app and people completing the couch to 5K challenge, but little about the problems people face trying to make it from an ambulance into a hospital bed.
The Junior Doctor section of the BMA has even produced a Where’s Barclay? in the style of Where’s Wally?
In an interview on Times Radio, Dr Ian Higginson, a vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, pointed out the lack of response from government ministers to the situation:
“There’s been a remarkable lack of what I would call meaningful engagement for quite some time from many political leaders. And what we tend to hear trotted out is the same old stuff rather than any acceptance that what myself on behalf of my colleagues within emergency medicine, what other colleagues in other parts of the health service are saying, is real.”
NHS England did send out its Chief Strategy Officer Chris Hopson to cast doubt over the talk of over 500 deaths a week, with Hopson saying: “We don’t recognise these numbers. We need to be very careful about jumping to conclusions about excess mortality numbers and their cause without a full and detailed look at the evidence which is now under way.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr Higginson said the “appalling” waits could not be blamed on winter flu or Covid and warned of attempts to “discredit” figures estimating that as many as 500 people are dying each week because of the delays.
“These are real figures and I worry that we’re going to hear attempts to spin and manipulate this data and discredit it. I think if we hear that, we’ve got to say no – that is spin. This is a real problem. It’s happening now in our emergency departments.”
“If you’re at the frontline, you know that this is a longstanding problem. This isn’t a short-term thing.”
Phil Banfield, the chair of the BMA, said the future of the NHS is “balanced on a knife-edge” but “it is solely within Government’s gift to pull this back from the brink.” However, despite repeated invitations, the government has refused to sit down and talk about the situation, “their [the government] silence is deafening.”
Dr Banfield added that the situation is “a political choice and patients are dying unnecessarily because of that choice.”
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