Within the past five years, both my parents have died. My mother died in March 2013; my father just before Christmas. I have no complaints: they were both in their nineties and had led long and happy lives.
They also, especially towards the end of their lives, had benefitted from superb care paid for by the NHS. Even when doctors, nurses and other staff were working under immense stress, they were unfailingly kind and professional.
Like millions of other people who have had similar experiences, I have nothing but admiration for the medical and other staff who keep the NHS going, through thick and thin, winter and summer, flu outbreaks and terrorist attacks.
I have rather less admiration for the politicians who have systematically starved the health service of the resources it so desperately needs to provide for the ever-increasing demands of an ageing population.
How Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, can be spoken of as a minister who has done his job so well that he deserves a promotion, is something I shall never begin to understand.
According to The Times: ‘Tory MPs increasingly admire Mr Hunt, 51, for his perseverance in a difficult brief.’ Others, however, are reported to fear that he is still regarded as ‘toxic’ by some sections of the public.
Consider me among those sections. Consider me also among those who remember the British Red Cross warning exactly a year ago ― a year ago! ― that the NHS was facing a ‘humanitarian crisis’ following the deaths of two patients after long waits on trolleys in hospital corridors.
There are many problems in the world that Theresa May can do little or nothing about. The war in Syria, Donald Trump, North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, the agonies of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
There are others where she can make a very real, immediate difference ― and the NHS is one of them.
So how has she reacted as the long-predicted winter crisis blew up in her face? ‘I know it’s difficult, I know it’s frustrating, and I know it’s disappointing for people, and I apologise.’
Fine words butter no parsnips, as the old saying goes ― nor do they save an NHS in dire crisis
Difficult? Disappointing? Has Mrs May ever been stuck on a hospital trolley in A&E, waiting in agony, terrified that she had been forgotten? Has she ever pysched herself up ahead of an operation, done all the pre-op things she had been instructed to do, made arrangements to put her life on hold, spent a sleepless night fretting about what might happen if the op goes wrong, only to be told when she gets to the hospital: ‘Oh sorry, we’ve had to reschedule your operation, you can go home again.’?
What should she have said? ’I readily acknowledge that the NHS is facing a funding crisis. I am taking immediate steps to reverse the £2 billion of income tax cuts and £1 billion of welfare cuts that came into force last April ― 80% of the benefit of which went to better-off households ― and will plough the extra revenue back into the NHS.
‘I will also plough extra money back into local council budgets, so that they can start to rebuild their social care provision and relieve some of the pressure on hospital beds. In addition, I want to say loud and clear that there will always be a valued place for non-British born staff in the NHS, that we will guarantee their long-term future in this country, regardless of any Brexit deal that may eventually be agreed with the EU, and that we shall continue to recruit from overseas to fill some of the 10,000 unfilled doctor posts and 40,000 nurse vacancies.’
But of course, she can’t - won’t - say anything like it. Because she still believes there is ‘waste’ in the NHS, that ‘efficiencies’ are required, and that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Nigel Farage still poses an existential threat to her party and her government.
Is the NHS perfect? Of course not. Could it be better run? No question. Are there lessons that under-performing Trusts could learn from the better-run ones? I’m sure there are.
But not while front-line staff and managers alike are battling to keep the service functioning at all. Not while they are on the edge of physical and emotional collapse as a result of the ‘challenges’ that confront them.
And not while both the prime minister and the health secretary think it’s enough to say how much they appreciate what NHS staff do. Fine words butter no parsnips, as the old saying goes ― nor do they save an NHS in dire crisis.
It’s all too easy to obsess about the latest lunacies from the White House, or the dismal prospect of never-ending Brexit rows. Once in a while, we need to look at what’s happening right under our noses, in doctors’ surgeries and local hospitals all over the country.
And then tell our MPs what we expect them to do about it.