The NHS is braced for its toughest cold season yet: a recruitment crisis and Covid backlogs mean it is under more pressure than ever. A&E waiting times are at record highs, flu admissions are increasing rapidly and there are already concerns about the lack of beds.
Months of headlines about ambulance delays, hospitals at breaking point and burned-out staff loom – not to mention nurses striking over pay.
There were more than 100,000 unfilled vacancies in the NHS even before the pandemic hit. Brexit is believed to be contributing to staffing shortages.
What does it mean for patients? A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in March this year suggested a “two-tier” system is developing, with those who can afford it choosing to go private. The decline in quality of NHS services had already begun to “supercharge” the trend.
Jeremy Hunt announced a further £8bn for health and social care in his Autumn Statement, but the extra cash is expected simply to allow services to continue at their current level rather than improve.
Rishi Sunak, who has defended the principle of a health service free at the point of use, may be asked to intervene and explain why the NHS has ended up in this state. But it’s a politically tricky area for a Prime Minister who is registered with a private GP practice and recently hired the private health lobbyist Bill Morgan as a No 10 adviser. Unions have already voiced suspicions that the Conservatives are considering further privatisation.
There is pressure on Keir Starmer, too. Labour’s electoral prospects are tied to being trusted on the NHS: the public may increasingly turn to Starmer for hope and ideas.