Norman Lamb: Time for honesty about future funding of NHS

EVERYONE knows the National Health Service is in crisis. It seems to be on our television screens daily.

NHS and social care policy requires a political consensus, says Norman Lamb.

Even the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt admits that NHS services are often “completely unacceptable”.

But it seems this Conservative Government has become increasingly ambivalent to the state of our health service.

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In Yorkshire, vital A&E wards in Dewsbury, Huddersfield and Scarborough are all at risk of being closed or downgraded – it’s the same over the border at Darlington.

Communities are set to face even longer waits for emergency care, including those in rural areas who may soon have to travel hours to receive treatment.

These changes are happening for a simple reason – this Conservative government is failing to give the NHS and care services the cash they need to cope with rising demand.

To make matters worse, local people on the ground are not being given a say into these decisions which will have a huge impact on their lives. The stark reality is that we are seeing the gradual downgrading of our health service taking place behind closed doors.

To add insult to injury, it has emerged consultants were paid over £1m to draw up these cost-cutting plans for Yorkshire’s health service.

It is difficult to justify why consultancy firms should get paid thousands of pounds for advice while the public is not even properly consulted, especially when frontline services are being stretched to breaking point.

As hospitals struggle with a record numbers of cancelled urgent operations and longer and longer waits at A&Es, resources are being wasted on long-term plans set to make things even worse.

The impact of the winter crisis in Yorkshire has been particularly severe. NHS figures show that at the beginning of this year, almost half the hospital trusts in the region issued major alerts to warn they were facing serious operational pressures.

These warnings mean patient flow has been seriously compromised and key targets such as waiting times are not being met. Many local hospitals have been facing this level of pressure day after day.

The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, running six hospitals in total, warned it was facing serious operational pressures every single day from January 3-18. This situation simply isn’t sustainable. When hospitals face relentless pressure like this, there can be doubt that patient care and outcomes will suffer.

Hospitals across Yorkshire have also seen frightening levels of bed shortages. Occupancy rates are all too often well over the recommend safe limit of 85 per cent. Shockingly, the hospital network across Mid Yorkshire at some points last month had as little as four beds free.

These chronic bed shortages have a serious impact on care, with patients facing longer waits, cancelled operations and a higher risk of infection. Again, this isn’t a situation that is sustainable. And the sad reality is that while the Government waits for the latest crisis to go away, an even worse crisis is waiting just around the corner.

To overcome these problems, we need to work across party divides and have a full and frank debate that fully involves local communities across the country.

That is why I am calling for a cross-party NHS and Care Convention to engage the public with the aim of delivering a long-term settlement for the NHS and care. I have launched a petition which now has over 16,000 signatures, calling on Theresa May to urgently seek a cross-party solution to the health and care crisis. A few weeks ago, I led a cross-party delegation of MPs to meet with the Prime Minister and discuss our proposals.

She seemed willing to engage in a serious dialogue about how best to secure the future of our NHS and social care services.

But there is still a long way to go. There is a real urgency, and now is the time to act.

The public are crying out for politicians to stop shouting at each other, and instead work together to make difficult decisions to ensure that patients get the right care and treatment.

That should include being honest with the public about the scale of the funding gap that our health service faces. To secure the long-term future of the NHS and care, we may all have to pay a little more in tax.

The Liberal Democrats are prepared to make that case. We hope that others will join us in making it too.

Norman Lamb is the Lib Dem health spokesman. He was Minister of Care and Support from 2012-15.