The NHS hasn’t had the best start to 2018, to put it mildly.
In fact, our National Health Service seems in dire straits. Headline after headline of damning figures and ominous warnings have brought the reputation of the world’s fifth largest employer crumbling down. Only this week, 68 leading A&E doctors warned of impossible conditions on wards with patients crammed into corridors, and there were even reports of people stuck waiting in ambulances for hours just to get a hospital bed. None of this is made better by one of the worst flu outbreaks in recent years, that’s set to overwhelm already packed hospitals.
If there’s one clear message from the past 12 days, it’s that something’s got to give.
People of course will look for who to blame. Labour will target Theresa May and her health secretary Jeremy Hunt, for their successive cuts to the NHS budget that’s squeezed services just when they were most under pressure. As if to add insult to injury, the Tories also happily slashed council budgets, which had the knock-on effect of bringing social services, crucial in alleviating the pressures on hospitals, to an equally disastrous crisis point.
Labour are right to attack the Conservatives on this. But we shouldn’t forget that the Tories were the unlucky inheritors of the poisoned chalice that is public health.
An ageing population, better and more sophisticated treatments, massively expensive new drugs and equipment, and a growing lack of doctors. All of these factors are working against the NHS in the long run, and such a crisis, as is occurring in front of us in slow motion, would be looming whether better funded (as under previous Labour governments) or not.
To put it bluntly, we knew this was coming. The question is, if this is truly a watershed moment in the history of the NHS, what can we do?
Luckily, the NHS isn’t facing imminent collapse. Yet. But if something isn’t working, do we continue throwing money at it until it does, or do we accept that something desperately needs to change, to prevent the deaths of heart attack victims not seen for almost 4 hours because paramedic crews are overwhelmed with patients (as happened earlier this month in Essex).
The NHS is sacred in British politics, and it’s easy to understand why. The idea of universal healthcare, paid by the taxpayer to look after everyone in society regardless of wealth, is the kind of ideal that makes us proud to be British. A streak of compassionate patriotism that serves us well to remember as Brexit drags on and ugly nationalism rages across Europe and North America.
But in this the 70th year of the NHS, it’s time for us to put sacred cows and political agendas to one side, and accept the painful reality.
The system we have just isn’t working.
It’s letting people down, and the heroics of its multi-national staff who love it perhaps most of all, can only keep it treading water for so long.
Britain at its best has always been a nation of moderation and pragmatism, and at a time when we want to move away from Europe and regress into comfortable nostalgia, it might be time we let our erstwhile friends on the continent teach us a lesson or two.
The lesson we need to learn is this: there is a middle ground. Reforming healthcare doesn’t mean full privatization, profiteering or cronyism, and it’s not radical or cruel to suggest it.
Even more crucially, we need to understand that reform is not just about the way we pay, but the very way we conceive healthcare. It desperately needs to become more than just a network of hospitals, and instead a system of social care that can cope with a population encumbered with an array of lifelong diseases.
The NHS, a colossus so inbuilt into the British way of life, has a way of stifling debate around its relative merits. As its seen as the most altruistic and just healthcare system in the world, it’s impossible to levy honest criticisms about where the money goes without being labelled a monster. The irony is, such actions allow for the slow disintegration of healthcare in Britain, which hurts the very people the NHS’ guardians seek to protect.
An honest public debate is needed about the NHS, if not now, then when? After more needless deaths? Another Christmas when the entire system teeters on the brink of collapse? Let’s not fool ourselves, this is the watershed moment. From here on, things will only get worse. A labour government that throws money into the old system will find it a black hole out of which very little will return, so chronic are the long-term health issues the nation faces.
The creation of the NHS in 1948 should be remembered as a proud moment in British history. No one can claim otherwise. But the realities of health care in 1948 couldn’t be further from the situation we face today, and only a liar or a fool would claim they are happy with the sorry state we’ve allowed the NHS to spiral into.
Change must come, and the time for reform is now.