Take in a deep breath and read the following. Ready? Ok:
- Junior doctors contracts
- The ongoing encroachment of privatisation
- A&E departments in crisis
- A lack of hospital beds
- Regular closure of GP surgeries
- Waiting lists are at their longest since 2007
- A critical lack of social care
- A £22bn financial black hole by 2020.
You can almost hear the whirring sound of Aneurin Bevan as he spins in his grave at the situation the NHS finds itself. It’s nearly 70 years since the National Health Service Act of 1946 came into force, a move that has provided millions with a health provision free at the point of care, helped increase the population’s life expectancy, and reduce infant mortality rates. It is held in the highest regard by most Brits, and with good reason.
Yet the current Government is either ignorant, blasé, or complicit in severely damaging the NHS – as well as putting the health of the nation at risk.
For the past seven years, the Government has driven through an agenda of austerity, using the dual tactics of efficiency drives and reductions in funding to cut public spending to ensure the country ‘lives within its means’. In terms of the NHS, this has meant hundreds of millions of pounds of efficiencies every year. Approximately £200m was cut from the public health service budget in 2015/16 alone, with a further £600m of cuts expected to be made by 2020/21. This will no doubt have a significant impact on the health of the nation, and is already being felt by patients according to the think tank, The Nuffield Trust, with smoking cessation and sexual health support experiencing funding cuts. You know, the sorts of things that cost more to address if they’re left to form long-term health problems.
Worse, while the Government is keen to point out that it is spending extra billions of pounds to increase health spending by £4.2bn by 2020/21, it represents a rise of just 1.1% per year – far less than the long-term average of 4%.
Despite this, The Commonwealth Fund (a non-partisan health research organisation) reported in 2014 that the NHS was the most impressive system compared with 10 other countries – including the USA, Canada, New Zealand, France, and Germany. Furthermore, it came out top in a number of other areas, including efficiency, effective care, safe care, coordinated care, patient-centred care and cost-related problems. It’s a testament to the hundreds of thousands of NHS staff that they are delivering such care and treatment in the face of what is increasingly an existential crisis brought on by Government policy.
A tactical increase in spending could help, so too a more holistic patient pathway as outlined by the head of NHS England, Simon Stevens. Laser-focused spending on social care provisions, enabling the elderly to return home quicker and thus free up hospital beds sooner, is one solution. Increased funding to walk-in centres, thereby freeing up the often packed A&E waiting rooms, is another option, as would longer opening times for GP surgeries. Or should the NHS be taken out of Government responsibility, instead being overseen at Westminster by a cross-party Department of Health?
This all costs money and political will, but perhaps the current crisis is so critical that the government should recognise that the time has come for a NHS tax to be introduced – whether that’s through direct tax or a different route. Perhaps, similarly to the workplace pensions, people could have a small percentage of their salaries taken specifically for health care – just £5 per month per working person in the UK would raise around £1.9bn per year alone! And of course, the amount could actually differ depending on the salary of the person rather rely on a flat figure.
What is certain is that as the winter crisis of 2016/17 deepens, more and more people will find themselves in need of the NHS. In the years ahead, we will have to work to ensure Government gets its head out of the sand and take notice – because if current trends continue, there may not be much of a NHS to turn to when we really need it.