Everyone, just about, loves the National Health Service.
I’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of emails from Bristol West constituents on the NHS and many, many, conversations on the same topic.
Of all these interactions, no-one has ever asked me to ask the government to spend less on the NHS. In fact, most suggest the country should spend more. I agree.
Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt recently announced extra funds for the NHS. This is good news. Independent organisations such as the King’s Fund and the National Audit Office as well as influential policy makers from across all parties have said the NHS needs more money.
So why am I not thrilled by the announcement?
Firstly, it falls short of what the NHS needs. The Health Foundation, a recognised authority on NHS finance, has said that this is “simply not enough.” The 3.4% increase is little more than the 3.3% increase the NHS needs to maintain current levels, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Secondly, much of this funding is just reinstating some of the cuts made during eight years of successive Tory and Tory-led governments. Over this period, health workers have repeatedly been asked to do more for less, and while increasing efficiency is positive, health staff tell me they can cut no further without risking patients.
And the NHS is affected by cuts to other departments too. Cuts to local government funding have slashed social care provision by £7 billion. This means some people are unable to leave hospital, even when they are ready, as they need help at home. This delays others in receiving the treatment they need.
A failure to prioritise public health more broadly has other negative consequences for NHS budgets. Cuts to sexual health services lead to increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases, for example. Failure to implement a sugar tax or minimum alcohol unit pricing has an impact on levels of obesity. All this puts the NHS under even more strain.
This situation means morale in the NHS is often low, leading to staffing shortages. There are chronic shortages in certain areas, such as radiology. A large number of GPs are taking early retirement while an insufficient number of doctors are entering general practice to replace them. In turn, this means hospitals and other providers are forced to buy in expensive agency staff and locums, to the tune of £3 billion per year – another hit to the NHS budget.
The Tory programme of cuts was leading to disaster, something which has been evident for some time. Waiting lists have gone up to 4 million and 26,000 cancer patients had to wait more than 60 days for treatment. In January 2017, the NHS was so underfunded it caused a “humanitarian crisis” according to the Red Cross.
Many of these stories are human tragedies too, no doubt resulting in avoidable complications, illnesses and deaths. The announcement of more funding for the NHS is long overdue, but the Government should not be congratulated for getting us into this mess in the first place.