Wednesday, 24 January 2018

An Unacceptable Metric

The current crisis in the National Health Service will persist until rising temperatures and a media exhausted by repetition of the acronym allow the ‘story,’ to disappear. There will be no new money, substantive or otherwise. Nor will there be any bold action, any concessionary or apologetic speeches – anything that might be considered leadership.

The consequence will be repetition. There will be an NHS winter crisis over the 2019 new year. If the system – or the government in charge of it – has not broken by then, the same will be true of the 2020 period. It is a sad truth of politics that when no obvious or easy solutions present themselves, inaction becomes a viable option. Yet inaction creates a vacuum that gets filled with ideas that are dangerous, disruptive or just wrong. Inaction allows the narrative to be hijacked by those with wicked agendas, who will then point to future crises whilst wearing incredulous grins chuckling “I told you so.” In a sense, this is the long-term danger of a lack of leadership with the NHS – that those who talk of privatisation may rear their heads and become validated in the eyes of some.

And thus, we return to the need for leadership. It is opportune that in the same week the NHS was reaching breaking point, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt was proving where his loyalties lie – himself. He is obviously the individual whom blame should most firmly be placed, if for no other reason than his position makes him the figurehead of the organisation. He should be sacked, not because of politics, but because anyone, in any line of work, who was failing in their position so egregiously should be, and would have been, sacked.

Yet the Prime Minister can’t. Indeed, it seems she is incapable of doing much of anything, but staying on point momentarily: her attempts to remove Mr. Hunt from health were scuppered by her own weak position. Justine Greening, formerly of education, had already walked, and Mr. Hunt must surely have been aware that his departure would have threatened Mrs. May’s government. Again, despite politics (and frankly, despite the NHS crisis) when a Prime Minister does not have the authority to appoint, dismiss and rearrange members of their cabinet, we must question their capacities. Of all the things that can be said about the current government, incompetent does not seem wholly fair, whilst cruel implies some conspiracy. Instead, I prefer sycophantic.

But returning to the NHS, what can Mrs. May do? An initial action immediately presents itself – more money. Many critics, including myself, argue that simply throwing more money at the NHS will not solve the underlying problems within the system, and that is true (though money is clearly a large part of any solution). But whilst there is an immediate crisis, concerns for fiscal efficiency must be set aside so that people may be seen, treated and given a bed if required. For those, mostly elderly individuals, who have paid taxes and now call on the medical services of the NHS, it is their right and this government’s obligation to ensure those services are provided and unimpeded.

I understand it is not possible to expand the capacity of our hospitals, or the number of doctors and nurses on the wards, overnight. That is why Mrs. May should move to commandeer the resources of private healthcare providers in the short-term. Such powers are those exclusive to the government, and should be utilised when the situation calls for it. Right now, the situation calls for it, yet such a bold move seems outside the reach of those presently in power.

Finally, and I think most importantly for the long-term, the government needs to understand the pressures facing the health service. Of course, the government will claim it does (amongst other claims), but I offer some tangible actions that might add credence to this quite vapid statement.

Firstly, Theresa May should visit every hospital in the country. She should not visit one or two with a press pack, and talk only to those members of staff who have been photogenically lined up by the reception desk. She should visit every hospital, and field the concerns of every doctor, nurse and patient who wish to speak to her. For Mrs. May, it must not be an act of PR or policy launching, but simple listening and observation.

Second, there should be an inquiry into the cause of the current NHS crisis that places blame and puts forward solutions, so as to prevent the predictions I have made above. Certainly, the heads of hospital trusts should testify, as well as Jeremy Hunt, and the Prime Minister if so required. Only once the social, financial and political causes of the strains in the NHS are understood should further ideas – such as royal commission – be considered. This seems only logical.

Third, we must not ignore the NHS. As eluded to earlier, the coverage in the press plays a huge role in how the health of the health service is understood by the public. Yet if during the summer we ignore the state of the NHS, simply because there are no headline-grabbing stories, should we not expect issues to arise when the winter pressures hit? Indeed, should we not be more aware of the constant pressures facing the NHS? If we only fight for something when there is an existential risk to it, are we not partly to blame when it disappears? 

There are some things the government could be doing right now to solve this problem, but through distraction and weakness they are failing to serve the NHS, and by extension the country. The consequences of doing nothing, in both regards, may be counted in lives lost, and surely that is an unacceptable metric?

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