My fear is that Addenbrooke's is just the beginning

Conservative ministers have pushed the NHS to the brink of crisis, warns Heidi Alexander.

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Earlier this week Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, one of the biggest and most well-known teaching hospitals in the UK, was put into special measures.

How a hospital, which only two years ago was ranked by the Care Quality Commission as one of the safest in the country, can deteriorate in this way, is a question which should trouble all of us who depend on the NHS.

The worry is that Addenbrookes is not an isolated case. With more and more hospitals in some form of special measures and with two thirds of Trusts forecasting a deficit, Ministers must act now to prevent the problems reoccurring elsewhere.

The truth is many of the problems the CQC identified at Addenbrookes are a direct consequence of decisions this government has made. 

Whilst our ageing population creates an underlying pressure on hospitals across the country, the failure of Conservative ministers to plan the NHS workforce and properly fund social care is at the heart of the problem. 

A key contributor to the ‘inadequate’ rating given to Addenbrookes was understaffing, particularly in the maternity and A&E services. The CQC is clear that the staff working at the hospital did everything they could for the patients in their care. The problem was that there simply weren't enough of them.

Once of the most short-sighted decisions the government took in the last parliament was to cut nurse training commissions. It’s why we have a shortage of qualified nurses in the NHS today which is forcing hospitals to recruit from overseas or hire expensive agency staff.

The Royal College of Nursing estimate that hospitals spent almost £1 billion on agency nurses alone last year – it’s no wonder hospital finances are in such a dire position.

Another significant problem at Addenbrookes has been its inability to discharge patients when they are ready to go home. Earlier this year, Addenbrookes was one of the hospitals to declare a ‘major incident’, and at the time its now former chief executives said 200 of its beds were taken up with patients who could not leave because social care was not in place to support them.

This is what happens when you cut billions from local authority budgets that pay for older people’s social care. 300,000 fewer older people are now getting help with their care than when David Cameron became Prime Minister. Cuts to social care are cuts to the NHS - just by a different name. 

The NHS is now in a precarious position.

Hospital bosses all over the country are facing a stark choice between balancing the books and delivering safe care. 

If the NHS is to get through the next year, without more hospitals failing, then it needs urgent help from the government.

The promised funding for the NHS needs to be frontloaded, it cannot wait until 2020. The cuts to social care must stop. Understaffed wards must not be tolerated.

But most of all ministers must understand how their actions have put the NHS on the brink of crisis. 

My job over the coming months and years is to hold this government to account for the damage they have done, and be a strong voice for the patients who deserve better.

Addenbrookes must not be a sign of things to come; my fear is that it may just be the beginning. 

Heidi Alexander is Shadow Secretary of State for Health.

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