The NHS has been thoroughly ignored by Conservative party conference speeches with the exception of Jeremy Hunt. During an NHS funding and staffing crisis, no Conservative is going to offer significant money for public health care but Hunt has offered 1500 more training places for doctors each year. This is nice but it's not enough. In terms of our public health care needs, this token offering is like bailing out a sinking boat with a spoon.
Hunt claims that we'll be self-sufficient for doctors by the end of the next parliament in 2025. Here's where Hunt might be a bit confused. We currently have 70,000 foreign trained doctors (with OECD estimating around 1/3rd doctors are foreign born, roughly 90,000). He's offering to train an extra 1500 per year between September 2018 and May 2025. It takes at least 7 years to become a doctor, so by 2025 we'll have 1500 doctors. Even if he's got a plan for awarding doctoral degrees like his old university awards Masters degrees (you get one automatically after a year of working in your field), we'd still only have 10,000 new doctors to make us self-sufficient.
This is a much more complex equation though. We already have too few doctors and many vacancies lie unfilled. Years of underfunding and caps on training and a failed austerity plan have stripped the NHS to the point of death. This means an extra 1500 doctors would barely be enough to fill the gaps we have now. Hunt isn't promising a means of boosting staff in future, he's offering a sticking plaster tomorrow for the staffing crisis today. Oh, and let's not forget the staff needed for his unfunded, unsafe, 7-day NHS policy.
Hunt is also overlooking the staffing crisis brought in by years of pushing the NHS to its lowest morale ever. Nurses are quitting their loved vocation and doctors are leaving in droves. Conservative cuts have pre-empted Hunt's new trainees by 6 long, hard years (plus 2 more before his plans start in 2018).
Demand for health care has been rising and despite claims that it's the fault of those pesky immigrants (all evidence points to this not being the case, but that's just expert opinion), it's actually because we have an ageing population who need long term, complex care for expensive conditions like diabetes, cancer, dementia and chronic frailty. We should see this as a success - we all get to live longer - but it also poses a staffing problem for the NHS. Not only do we need more staff to care for the rising demand, but more doctors retire daily and then become part of the demand, not part of the solution. We need to train a much larger number of doctors just to help us cope with the retirement bomb that is hitting our NHS, never mind to replace foreign doctors.
One good thing Hunt did mention was a push for treating more mental health patients each year. A million more people by the end of this parliament. That's fantastic news because one in four of us will experience mental health issues each year and we have regular reports about how mental health care is insufficient. What Hunt doesn't say is how many more doctors we need for this mental health boom and how his 1500 are going to make that happen. This is like the ageing population issue - demand is rising and his offer of new workers is unlikely to scrape the surface let alone replace the need for foreign doctors. The difference is that mental health demand has always been there, we've just ignored it or given that 90% of prisoners have mental health issues, shamefully locked it away.
Theresa May has recently echoed Hunt's cry for self-sufficiency. In her words, foreign doctors will be welcome 'for the interim period'. This sort of language is not likely to help doctors feel welcome at a time when the Brexit vote and subsequent rising xenophobia have already made doctors feel ill at ease. At Healthier IN and Scientists for EU we've received reports from health care professionals that they are leaving or considering leaving already. Not all foreign doctors will leave the UK as Brexit unfolds but can our understaffed NHS afford to lose any of them? If 5% were to leave by 2025, then Hunt's first year of new recruits would be eaten up by those losses alone.
Earlier this year, Jeremy Hunt misled the public about the size of his increase in NHS budget. A few weeks ago Hunt misled the public again about increases to health research funding. Demand is rising at 4% while funding increases at 0.2% and our government is talking about 'record levels of funding'. The Health Secretary is showing a pattern for misusing statistics - he is talking about 'more' as a distraction from the conversation about 'enough'.
If you're a health care professional, researcher or patient and observing effects of Brexit on the NHS already, let the Brexit Health Watch campaign know via our Brexit monitoring form.