We’ve spent 15 months following rules and restrictions, agreeing to vaccines and curtailing our lives, all to ‘protect the NHS’.
I’ve always said that this was putting a colossal guilt trip on the nation; wasn’t the NHS supposed to protect us? And then we found out that swingeing funding cuts and the recruitment crisis afflicting nurses, consultants and GPs following years of under-investment had left our health service at risk and vulnerable.
Clearly, the Government had not been following its own advice. Rather than protecting the service which should protect us all, using taxpayers’ money wisely for investment in staff, recruitment, training and resources, it stood guilty of neglecting our prize national asset.
We agreed – because we had no choice – to do our bit to help, egged on by the Prime Minister and his Health Secretary, Matt Hancock who kept reminding us that we were ‘all in this together’. If this meant avoiding calling our GP surgery should we find a worrying lump, well, it was for the good of the nation, right?
And now, with almost 130,000 UK deaths attributed to Covid- 19 alone, we hear that the creaking NHS, the service we banged our pans to support and avoided relying upon unless in the case of dire emergency, is in the emergency room itself. Mr Hancock should not be allowed to brush off this perilous situation with customary blitheness as he faces a Parliamentary inquiry today over his handling of the pandemic,
Burn-out among NHS staff is prompting resignations, causing medical blunders and putting patients’ safety at risk, says a new report from the Commons Health Committee chaired by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who shouldn’t stand blameless either.
Even before the pandemic struck, there were an estimated 85,000 vacancies in the NHS in England and 112,000 unfilled posts in social care, the committee heard. The knock-on effects of such severe staff shortages are the main reason NHS workers are now suffering burn-out, being forced to work longer hours and under constant pressure to perform tasks which may be life-saving.
Mr Hunt says that unless the Government and NHS make changes to ensure full staffing levels, the huge backlog that has built up as a result of Covid-19 disruption will threaten our health for years to come.
The number of people waiting for hospital treatment in England alone now exceeds five million for the first time since records began in 2007. And that’s just hospital treatment, not preventative care or dentistry, where some patients face a three-year wait to even see a dentist.
Obviously, Mr Hancock will explain this away in his oleaginous manner by blaming everything on the pandemic, but this isn’t going to help bring those waiting lists down – or save lives. Committed staff, who reward the respect they are shown by the NHS high command and the Government with loyalty and dedication, are.
This Westminster drubbing for Mr Hancock’s department comes after Suzie Bailey, director of leadership and organisational development at influential healthcare charity The Kings’ Fund, called for a clear focus on recruitment and retention of staff.
She wants to see a fully-funded workforce plan that addresses staff shortages, including the thorny issue of post-Brexit overseas recruitment, tackles stress and burn-out and recognises the impact of the past year on staff wellbeing.
Key to this would be new minimum standards to improve working conditions and an urgent review into the practice of 12-hour shifts and their impact on both staff health and patient quality of care.
Will the Health Secretary listen to her? Or to all the other experts who keep presenting him with irrefutable evidence that the NHS is on the critical list?
If not, the prospect of where the NHS goes from here brings fresh urgency to the case. Saving the NHS should be an absolute open goal for floundering Labour. Leader Sir Keir Starmer should let Mr Hancock’s front bench opposite number, Jonathan Ashworth, loose at every opportunity.
However, evidence to date suggests that whatever is flung at him, Mr Hancock will simply shrug his shoulders and carry on grinning, resting on the laurels of the successful vaccine roll-out. This should not go unchecked. More pressure must be applied to the deep and scarring wound that is our NHS.
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