In October, Sajid Javid insisted: “We don’t think the pressures currently facing the NHS are unsustainable. It was a statement that didn’t age well. This led to snorts of derision from senior doctors and hospital bosses, some of whom wondered what planet the Health Secretary lived on.
Days later Roland Sinker, Managing Director of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, gave clear insight into how easily NHS hospitals can be overwhelmed. He told a Zoom staff meeting that the loss of 150 out of 900 beds at the trust’s main hospital – Addenbrooke’s one, one of the best in the NHS – meant ‘we could barely function before Covid ”. With “150 beds out of 900” unavailable, “it ceases to function like a hospital”.
A few days earlier, a patient had died in the back of an ambulance outside the hospital. So worrying was her inability to keep up with the demand, Sinker said, that she might have to send patients to London or Birmingham. “I am much more anxious and scared now” than when he took office in 2015, he admitted, adding: “One would have to be asleep not to realize the deep nature of the crisis we find ourselves in. . “
Fast forward two months and a growing number of NHS trusts in England, grappling with an increase in staff illnesses brought on by Omicron, must now declare a ‘critical incident’ – an admission they cannot cope with. extreme pressure they are under. are faced. “Unfortunately, this means the postponement of some elective operations and outpatient appointments to accommodate patients with the most urgent clinical needs,” said Aaron Cummins, managing director of Morecambe Bay Trust teaching hospitals in Cumbria, in a statement. . It is easy to see in such situations proof that these places are overwhelmed.
On Tuesday, it emerged that the NHS ambulance service covering North East England began asking friends and relatives of people who dialed 999 to bring them to hospital themselves, even if they are suspected of having a stroke or heart attack, as it cannot guarantee that paramedics will reach them in times that are close to expected response times.
Ministers would rather trumpet the record funding the NHS is currently receiving and most people now work for in England, rather than hearing such stories about the inability of the country’s most important service to do its job.
At Tuesday’s Covid press conference, Boris Johnson declined to define what an ‘overwhelmed’ NHS looked like. He denied suggestions that he was already in this condition, while conceding that “there will be a difficult time for our wonderful NHS in the coming weeks because of Omicron”. The reality is that the accumulation of problems today shows that a large part of the NHS is already overwhelmed.
Like NHS supplier boss Chris Hopson points out, while the current difficulties of the service are the result of “an exceptional surge of Covid”, years of government decisions have left it in this state of fragility. “Recent winters and the performance of the pre-Covid NHS show that after [a] The longest / deepest decade of financial squeeze in NHS history, the NHS has a serious capacity / demand mismatch and a broken workforce model, ”he said.
The NHS in England has nearly 100,000 vacant positions for years, including around 40,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors. The price of persistent understaffing is paid daily by health workers who regularly work overtime to ensure patients receive good care; this goodwill helps keep the NHS from falling. Patients experience it in the form of delays in getting help or having a diagnostic test. And that is also reflected in a service that in some areas too often wobbles dangerously close to falling, usually under the added pressure of winter, but sometimes also in summer, and certainly because of Omicron.
Analysis by Stephen Rocks of the Health Foundation think tank shows that the UK has only 3.93 hospital doctors per 100,000 population, the lowest in Europe. It also has only 2.42 beds per 100,000 inhabitants, the second lowest in Europe after Sweden, which has only 2.07. And it also ranks at the bottom of the international rankings for its offering of nurses, CT scanners and MRI machines.
The size of the NHS budget is important. But providing high quality health care involves more than that. It’s also about giving the service the people it needs and taking firm action to reduce disease.
The immediate and growing NHS crisis has long roots, which are also political roots. Years of decision-making by David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, especially their inaction on staffing, has weakened and woefully under-prepared for this level of extreme pressure, as critical incidents and the unavailability of staff. ambulances dramatically illustrate. The many supporters of the service can only hope that it does not break completely in the coming days.