Cancelled operations were “part of the plan” for the NHS to deal with its worst ever winter crisis, Prime Minister Theresa May has said.
During her New Year interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, the PM was told the crisis gripping the health service is a matter of “life and death” but the PM simply repeated her claim it was “better prepared” than ever before this year.
It comes amid 55,000 operations being cancelled in the space of a month, a return to mixed sex wards and 16,900 people being stuck in ambulances waiting to get into an A&E unit in the week from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve.
May said: “You mentioned operations being postponed. That was part of the plan.
“Of course we want to ensure that those operations can be reinstated as soon as possible, but it’s about making sure that those who most urgently need care are able to get that treatment when they need it.”
May was pressed on the case of Leah Butler Smith, a woman from Essex who has spoken of her anguish after she was left in an ambulance for an hour while her mum was having a stroke.
The pair had to wait a further four hours before her mum, who was slipping in and out of consciousness, was seen by a doctor.
Marr, who himself had a stroke, said: “If I’d been waiting for five hours before I’d seen a doctor after my stroke I would not be here talking to you. This is about life and death and up and down the country people are having horrendous experiences of the NHS.
“Where they say there’s a plan or not there is a real, real problem. What would you say to Leah Butler Smith and her mother?”
May replied: “Well obviously you’ve raised an individual case with me which I haven’t seen the details of and I – I recognise that people have concerns if they have experience of that sort.
“If we look at what is happening across the NHS what we see is that actually the NHS is delivering for more people, it is treating more people and more people are being seen within the four hours every day than has been in the – a few years ago.”
May said the Government had put an additional 350m into the NHS this winter but refused to set out a ten-year funding settlement for the brief, something her own Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and numerous medics have long called for.
In what looked like a direct protest at May’s health policy, indie band Franz Ferdinand’s drummer also wore an NHS T-shirt for their performance at the end of the programme.
May, however, said the public should be proud of how the NHS is performing.
She said: “Well year in and year out we look at the funding for the National Health Service and what we’ve done is consistently where we felt it did need more funding we have put more funding into it.
“We’ve put some – we put some extra money in for the coping with the winter pressures. We’ve also of course in the Budget in November announced that for the next couple of years there will be extra money, further money going into the National Health Service, so we look at what is needed and we recognise that. We also need to ensure that we’re seeing you know, across the whole of the NHS the best possible practice.
“We, you know – we should be proud of the fact that our NHS has been named as the safest and best health care system in the world. Is there more we can do? Yes, of course there is and that’s what the government will be doing.”
Marr pointed out that the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies had called the NHS’ current predicament “the tightest funding squeeze in the history of the NHS.”
He said: “Six billion pounds out of the Social Care budget since 2010, which is why there are so many people in hospital beds at the moment and an NHS reorganisation under Andrew Lansley described by your own former advisor Nick Timothy, as being a disaster.”
May replied that reforming social care was on the Government’s agenda in 2018.
She said: “Well if you look at the social care system we have recognised the pressure that is put on the NHS and the pressure – increased pressure on the social care system because of the ageing population.”
Asked precisely why she apologised to people for the state of the NHS this year, May said: “What I have said was that I was apologising for the fact that of course as we’ve seen some operations have been postponed and some people have been delayed in being admitted to – to hospital.
“Now, if you look across the NHS, experience is different. Experience is different from hospital to hospital as to what is – what is happening. There are some hospitals where very few operations have been cancelled.”
Marr quickly countered: “And there are some where occupancy is 99.9%. Way above what is concerned to be safe.”
May said: ”The social care - I’ve always said and I’ve said for some time now – that if we look at the social care system we need to identify – there’s a short term answer, there’s a medium term answer and a longer term answer.
“Short term we’ve put extra money in. Medium term we need to ensure that best practice is being undertaken across the whole of the system.”
She went on to say: “So there are some areas where you will see very few delayed discharges, others where you’ll see a higher number. What we’ve done in the winter preparedness is worked on that and we’ve actually seen the number of delayed discharges – that’s elderly people being kept in hospital when they don’t need to be – coming down. Longer term we need a sustainable solution for our social care system.”
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth, meanwhile, told Marr: “This crisis of this magnitude was entirely predictable and indeed entirely preventable.
“Remember Andrew, that we are now in the eighth year of tight austerity on NHS finances.”