End annual winter health crisis for good

Ambulances outside Wansbeck Hospital
Ambulances outside Wansbeck Hospital

Once again, we are starting off a new year with our National Health Service coming under the most extreme pressure.

The first thing we heard at the start of 2018 from Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was that 55,000 people were to have operations delayed because of pressure on services.

‘Crisis’ is a strong word to use, but it crops up year after year at this time when we see reports about what is happening in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries all over the country.

Of course, we are in the middle of winter when more people become ill and demands on our healthcare professionals are greater than at any other time of the year. However, the media is talking about another winter ‘crisis’ in the health service and, worryingly, it is a word also being used more and more by healthcare professionals.

We are learning of people, many elderly and vulnerable, waiting hours to be seen in A&E departments, often on trolleys or even sitting on chairs, and in some cases on the floor. We hear of ambulances having to queue up outside hospitals to discharge patients, consequently being delayed getting back on the road, and of GP practices working flat out.

Some trusts have been reported as admitting that they have had to divert staff from office and administrative duties to act as porters and cleaners, and people are being urged not to go to hospital unless they are facing a real emergency.

All of this is little short of a national disgrace.

Mercifully, the much anticipated flu epidemic has not yet happened as severely as predicted, but if it does, the crisis can only deepen.

No wonder that a senior NHS consultant is reported as having apologised to patients for the “Third World conditions” some of them have been experiencing.

Yet Prime Minister Theresa May’s response seems to be “what crisis?”. She has even gone on record as saying the health service is “better prepared than ever before” to deal with the annual winter upsurge in demands.

Last week I met managers from Northumbria Healthcare for a planned briefing, but I was able to seek an update about the situation locally, where it has been compounded by a serious outbreak of winter vomiting virus, which has led to visitors being unable to see friends and family at four local hospitals, including Wansbeck.

I was reassured that doctors, nurses, managers, medical support staff and ambulance and paramedic crews are continuing to perform heroics under the most trying conditions to provide patients with the best care.

We pride ourselves that our NHS offers healthcare free at the point of delivery and stands comparison with the best in the world. Yet, under Conservative Governments, it has been under-funded and under-staffed, hospitals are over-crowded to the point where lives may be put in danger, and staff are worked to the limit of exhaustion. That can no longer be tolerated.

This is at a time when nurses still face uncertainty over what pay rise they might get. For the past eight years nurses have seen their pay rise by just one per cent a year, which is nothing short of a scandal.

Over the coming weeks and months attention is going to be focused on Brexit and securing the best possible terms on which Britain will leave the EU. What the ‘crisis’ in the health service reminds us of, however, is that funding and resources for the NHS are an important part of the debate.

During the referendum we were promised that if we voted to leave Europe huge sums of money would become available for the NHS. That was never going to happen, but we have to ensure that it will be adequately funded and resourced to make sure that we do not face these annual winter pressures, which seem to get worse year after year.