THERESA May and Jeremy Hunt’s contrition over the NHS winter crisis was certainly more sincere than Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s mishandling of the New Year rail fare hike.
Yet, while the Prime Minister and Health Secretary were right to pay tribute to those hospital staff working beyond the call of duty, they shouldn’t expect much sympathy from patients in return.
As A&E waiting times deteriorate, and non-urgent operations like hip replacements are postponed until the end of the month at the earliest, Mr Hunt appeared squeamish when the public’s pain was put to him in a stage-managed interview that appeared to be cut short by one of his PR aides.
First, the Health Secretary said an “independent panel” had recommended the scaling back of surgery. Then he cited the 3,000 additional patients who are treated at A&E every day. And then he spoke about the impact of a flu virus.
Yes, they’re all legitimate points but Mr Hunt has been Health Secretary since 2012 and has had more than five years to put in place robust plans to meet the health needs of a growing – and ageing – population.
That so many beds are occupied by elderly patients who can’t be discharged into the community for whatever reason is indicative of the Cabinet minister’s failure to integrate hospital and social care services – this is, arguably, the most pressing problem facing the NHS after staff shortages.
What does he – and the Prime Minister – intend to do to remedy this? Even though the NHS has bought itself time by deferring operations and outpatient appointments so consultants and doctors can prioritise the most needy, the backlog will be considerable and the patients concerned will expect, within reason, to know a new date for their treatment at the earliest opportunity.
And while everyone hopes that this week’s emergency measures are a short-term response, the need – in the 70th year of the NHS – for a longer-term care plan has never been more urgent.