In 2011 the NHS was lauded as the best health service in the developed world in a study by the Commonwealth Fund in terms of cost, efficiency and patient satisfaction. Six years later, after a programme of unprecedented cuts which has seen the service wilfully starved of funds, the NHS is now in the worst crisis in its history and is rapidly approaching breaking point.
The full scale of the crisis is now undeniable - we are witnessing record waiting times, rationing (or in some cases complete withdrawal of services) and levels of understaffing which has endangered patient care. In December last year A&E departments had to close their doors to patients 140 times. During last week alone, the number of patients exceeding the maximum four-hour A&E wait rose by 28% on the same period last year and an additional 485 patients waited longer than 12 hours to be seen. The tragic human consequences of this crisis are also coming to light with reports of patients dying in hospital corridors due to chronic bed shortages and understaffing. The situation is now so dangerous for our patients that the Red Cross is calling it a humanitarian crisis- and this is before the additional £22billion worth of cuts that Mr Hunt is demanding before the end of this parliament.
So how have we arrived at such a point, where health service provision in the world's fifth richest economy is so dangerous that a disaster relief charity has had to intervene? Whilst it has come as no surprise to healthcare staff who for years have been working under intolerable strain, our Secretary of State for Health refuses to acknowledge the severity of the problem. Mr Hunt has instead launched an incoherent campaign of spin and misinformation attempting to deny the existence of the crisis altogether whilst laying the blame for it on a growing list of culprits- from immigrants to 'health tourists' to an aging population, and even on a greedy inefficient workforce. But none of these factors account for the scale of the crisis. We must firmly reject the idea propagated by this government that the problem is due to the service becoming unaffordable or inefficient or suddenly being overwhelmed by additional demands.
This is a wholly manufactured crisis borne out of a sustained programme of cuts which has seen healthcare funding in the UK fall well behind other developed countries. Alongside these cuts we are witnessing unprecedented levels of private sector involvement. In the past 6 years private health providers have doubled their share of NHS contracts and are boasting "robust demand" all whilst introducing the waste and inefficiency of the markets into our health service and eroding its public service ethos.
It has felt that the last six years have seen the NHS in perpetual crisis but there is now a real sense that the service is being irreversibly damaged, most importantly the impact on our patients is becoming painfully clear. As healthcare workers our priority is the patients we serve and we must ensure it is their care and their priorities that directs how the service is run, but this is not just a fight that concerns NHS staff. The NHS belongs to us all and we all have a responsibility to safeguard it.
The coming months will see a ramping up in the number health campaigns and protests in defence of the NHS which will culminate in a nationwide demonstration called by The People's Assembly and Health Campaigns Together on 4 March 2017. We need health workers and patients marching together. There will always be forces that seek to destroy the NHS and undermine its values so the fight to defend it must be one that every generation takes on or we risk losing our NHS forever.