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Austerity Pushed the NHS to the Brink – Before Coronavirus

A decade of cutbacks, privatisation and underfunding have seriously damaged the NHS, just as it is about to face its greatest-ever crisis. It needs massive government investment – immediately.

Earlier this week health secretary Matt Hancock made a public appeal to Britain’s manufacturing industry for additional ventilators. The NHS is chronically short to cope with the predicted demand of the effect of a Coronavirus pandemic and companies were pleaded with to start making additional units. Yesterday Conservative MP Andrew Griffith tweeted: 

We are calling for a National Effort for Ventilator production. If your company might have the capabilities to manufacture ventilators at scale call the BEIS Business Support helpline on 0300 456 3565 after 10.00 am this morning. It will be busy – and please no time-wasters.

This evident desperation and clear lack of pandemic preparation will come as no surprise to NHS staff and campaigners who are well aware that the NHS has been suffering from a lack of vital equipment for years. Warnings have not been heeded, and it is both frontline staff and patients that will bear the brunt of this cumulative neglect.

Owing to this background of government negligence in its managing of the NHS, the service is generally ill-equipped to cope. Admittedly we are facing an unprecedented crisis where even the most well-funded and well-staffed system would face challenges. However, the NHS is not starting from a good place.

There are around 100,000 staff vacancies including over 40,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors. In 2017 the government scrapped the nursing bursary in England, placing an added financial burden on students, making it more difficult for many to qualify. This, added to an increasingly unmanageable working environment, has caused a mass exodus of NHS staff over the last ten years. The recent pensions problem that impacts the most senior highly-paid medics has also been handled very badly by the government and has meant that in some cases it has actually cost doctors to attend work, meaning they cannot take on extra shifts to assist with rota gaps.

Coupled to the staffing crisis, we have also lost over 17,000 hospital beds since 2010 thanks to closing hospitals and consolidating services. The NHS has been left with only 4,000 intensive care beds for the entire population. We have heard frightening reports from the Italian health service where in some cases medics are having to choose who receives treatment and who does not. Italy has around twice the number of ICU beds as Britain, and more doctors per head of the population. 

Underfunded year on year since 2010, it is not surprising that the NHS is now facing this stark reality. It should be obvious that requisitioning the 8,000 beds available in the private sector is what is urgently needed, and indeed thanks to the amount of money the UK taxpayer has shelled out in the last few years the private sector more than owes the NHS.

However, this is not currently the government’s plan. They are now in talks with private providers to pay for the use of the beds at a cost of £2.4m every single day. The private sector is poised therefore to profit out of what is a national crisis where thousands could die – and the government is enabling them. Government motives here must be questioned as every pound spent unnecessarily lining the pockets of shareholders could be much better utilised on frontline care.

This is not the time to focus on making political capital, and one must be sensitive to what is at stake. Nevertheless, with this pandemic the government’s neglect of the NHS is unforgiveable. Very early on in this crisis, healthcare workers nationwide already report a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), with some staff having to resort to purchasing their own face masks and surgical gloves. So far, despite their pleas, staff are not even being tested for the virus if they are symptomatic, which is leading to self-isolation when it may be completely unnecessary, further reducing an already depleted workforce. 

Even in these extreme times and for all the talk of how much they are needed and valued, NHS staff are being ignored and treated as commodities to be exploited. Their lives are being put at risk because of a lack of equipment, and the extreme mental and physical pressures they will be under is in no small part due to this shambolic and shameful government and their actions over the last ten years. 

All efforts and resource must now be focused on the frontline of NHS care to enable both the staff to cope, and patients to have the best chance of survival. Only time will tell what Johnson’s legacy will be, but history must judge this government not purely on the immediate result of the outbreak, but on the years leading up to it that has put at risk the very thing in our society that we all rely on the most.