Post-election, January 2020, can the NHS survive the winter?

Can our NHS survive this winter? With the election looming and polls suggesting a healthy Conservative majority, can the NHS make it through another cold, hard winter? How true are the claims of creeping privatisation? Will the NHS be on the table with the USA in future trade agreements? Can we keep it going, or will it end up languishing on a cold, hard floor, with only a few coats to cushion it, like 4 year old Jack Williment-Barr?

There are few images more heartbreaking than the sight of a sick child. With two small children of my own, both under 4, I couldn’t help but feel a lump in my throat when I first saw the picture of Jack Williment-Barr at a hospital in Leeds. His mother had made a crude nest of coats on the floor for him so that he could at least try to sleep. Suspected him of suffering with pneumonia, his mother had taken him to A&E. There were no beds for him once an emergency in greater need came in, so the floor was the only option. 

Jack Williment-Barr lies on the floor of a Leeds hospital

Today, our Prime Minister refused to look at this image, so iconic of today’s NHS. He simply pocketed the phone of the journalist who attempted to show him it. His arrogance was breathtaking – never was the ignorance of suffering writ so large during a media appearance. How anyone can ignore the plight of a child is beyond me. Yet perhaps it’s no wonder from a man who denies one or more of his own children. We still don’t know how many he’s fathered, refusing to discuss the subject when pressed on it by Nick Ferrari on LBC. 

The plight of little Jack  came as the Royal College of Emergency Medicine issued a warning – standards of care in A&E are now at their absolute worst. The 95% target of seeing all patients in A&E hasn’t been met since July 2015. 1 in 6 patients regularly wait longer than the four hour target to see a doctor and the operation waiting list of 4.42 million is the highest we have ever seen. 

It’s not just the Tories who have come in for fierce criticism on the NHS though – the Institute for Fiscal Studies have lambasted both the Labour and Conservative Manifesto costings, including Labour’s aim for all prescriptions to be free. They have said both manifestos ‘lack credibility’. Currently 89% of prescriptions are free, with the remaining 11% paid for by anyone not classified as under 18, 60 or over, on various benefits, within the maternity exemption period or are those with exempt illnesses and/disabilities. 

The geography of a clinical area

Talking with my father today, who is aged 61, he said he couldn’t remember a time when the NHS didn’t seem to be in decline. Traditionally right-leaning, he was surprised when I relayed something striking that I had heard. On my way to visit him in leafy Reigate, Surrey, from where I now live, in Maidstone, Kent, I listened to a senior nurse talk to James O’Brien on LBC. This nurse was discussing NHS computer systems, something of interest as my husband is a software engineer. He explained that their hospital software tracks where every patient is – from minor injuries to trauma, all the different wards, it’s important to know where everyone is. In recent years, he revealed, the software now allows you to mark the corridors where your patients must be left. The corridors are now clinical areas where doctors need to take detailed and private medical histories – sometimes from patients who are old and hard of hearing. Patient safety relies on detail, so dignity just falls by the wayside. The elderly must relay intimate details of the urinary tract infections that plague them and a complete rundown of all the medication they take. Right there, in the corridor. 

So, how credible is the argument that the Tories will privatise the NHS? Would that even help?

Today’s callers to James O’Brien’s show, in the main, were health care professionals. They were passionate about the institution they work for and dedicated to their patients. But their warning was stark. They feared the low staffing rates; their low morale was almost palpable. I’ve watched the videos of health care workers pleading for voters to take the NHS into consideration when they cast their ballot papers into their local ballot boxes. But today I heard something that worried me even more than the idea that privitisation might happen. The idea that it might not even make a difference to the care we receive. 

The truth is a little more nuanced than most may think – many parts of the NHS are already privatised. We just don’t really know it, because it’s hidden. The difficulty with the documents that were recently held aloft by Jeremy Corbyn and handed out by people dressed in scrubs revealed not that huge amounts of the NHS would necessarily be sold off – but that the way we buy medication was up for negotiation. US trade deals would potentially mean agreeing to let the US patents run far longer than they do now, meaning access to more economical, generic versions of drugs would be rapidly and significantly diminished. 

The answer to the credibility of claims that the Tories will sell off the NHS is also a lot more complex than ‘it will’ or talking about selling off NHS property or an extra £500million on drugs, though. It’s too huge an argument to cover here, though, so my full answer to that question is to question the evidence for the claims. Full Fact is a good place to start and the short answer is ‘don’t believe all the hype, but be sceptical of both parties’. 

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, NHS workers

What is more troubling, however, is the effect that Brexit has already had on our NHS. According to data from late November, compiled by the Liberal Democrats (who came in for the least criticism by the Institute for Fiscal Studies), 11,600 EU staff have left the NHS since we voted to leave the EU. 4,783 of them were nurses. Bristol, Oxford University and London North West hospitals were hit hardest, losing 203, 304 and 362 EU staff, respectively. 

But numbers don’t tell the real story – pictures like the one of that 4 year old struggling to sleep in his Spiderman pajamas under some coats and a thin blanket sum the situation up. The manifestos are just that – thin blankets to cover the shame of the stories of neglect within the funding of the NHS. With a growing elderly population, the Tories don’t even have a budget for Health and Social care. 

Wrap up warm this winter

I’ll leave you with the words of Dr Katherine Henderson, the RCEM President, who said we are “ignoring the human stories behind the numbers”. “Patients,” she says, have been “let down repeatedly by a parliament that consistently failed to grasp the scale of the problem.”

Let’s hope the NHS can be revived, regenerated and brought back to health, because we’re all one accident or emergency away from joining that little boy on the floor. Bring a hot water bottle next time you call 999. And remember to vote on Thursday. 

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