For the first time since records began more people are dissatisfied with the NHS than are satisfied with it, according to a recent poll by the King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust think tanks. They are frustrated with the difficulties in seeing a GP, or getting in to A&E, or getting their long-awaited surgery. It comes in the same week as the Ockenden report found that failures at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals NHS Trust led to 200 babies dying or suffering brain damage.
In Conservative circles, mutterings are made about efficiency and how the NHS needs a revamp. There is a strange fairytale those on the right of the political spectrum seem to believe in: that the NHS’s problems are due to anything but lack of funding. As has been the fashion for years, they point the finger at lazy doctors, as through medical staff go into the profession in the hope of an easy life and not to improve the lives of their patients.
This flies in the face of all evidence — and the public knows it. The vast majority of people (94 per cent) still believe in the founding principle of the NHS: free when you need it. Almost as many (80 per cent) have identified a lack of NHS funding as the core reason for their dissatisfaction. The public wants the NHS to continue and they know it is failing due to this government’s decision to let it. Something has changed; the government can no longer hide their role in letting the NHS fail. Everyone has experienced how strained NHS staff are when they turn up at an A&E ward, or knows a nurse or junior doctor who is trying to do their best while they face longer days and a squeeze on resources.
In addition, the government’s attitude towards the NHS during the pandemic has helped to expose the Conservative Party’s disdain. Faced with an unprecedented demand for healthcare as Covid ripped through our communities, they chose not to follow almost every other country and increase healthcare capacity. Instead, under Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock’s leadership it was shrunk further (during a pandemic!). As a consequence we are now two years into the most severe healthcare rationing in living memory. The public is feeling it.
Record-breaking waiting lists, record numbers of patients waiting more than 12 hours in A&E, record cancer treatment waits, record numbers of staff resigning, and this government is hoping the public will blame Covid and maybe even the NHS itself. The plan to clear the Covid backlog announced by Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, this year only compounds the government’s reputation for indifference to the public’s plights. Instead of addressing the urgent healthcare crisis and bolstering frontline services, it seeks to funnel yet more public funds to the private sector.
The Conservative Party leadership have, of course, underestimated the British public and the historic event that is Covid. Gradually, as more and more people suffer, the public is realising the harsh reality of the last two years: in our moment of need it was the government who abandoned us, not the NHS. It is simply wishful thinking to believe the NHS can magically re-invent itself without a significant injection of cash. And as this realisation spawns further reflection about the last ten years, a more profound question about this current Conservative government starts to emerge: were they ever really with us at all?