“It’s 12:03pm. If somebody phones 999 now because they have chest pains and fear it may be a heart attack, when can they expect an ambulance to arrive?” the Labour leader asked, with the government benches falling eerily silent as he completed his question.
Anyone who’s had to rely on the NHS in recent weeks will be painfully aware of the scale of the crisis. In December, 37,000 patients with conditions such as heart attacks and strokes – “category 2 calls” – waited more than three and a half hours for an ambulance. Given that NHS England’s target response time for such calls is 18 minutes, the service is not just missing this crucial target by a few minutes: people are waiting for care 12 and a half times longer than they should be.
But Sunak, the person ultimately responsible for the NHS, knows owning the catastrophe at the despatch box would be political suicide. When he was asked to admit there is a crisis, he sought to make favourable comparisons with Wales and Scotland, where health services are also struggling. There may be some truth to this but such whataboutery won’t hold water with the relatives of a stroke victim left without emergency care.
Starmer warned that by 1pm the patient could be “dizzy, sweating” and that though the “clock started ticking” when they picked up the phone, an ambulance could still be hours away. He went on to raise the real-life case of Stephanie, a cancer patient from Plymouth, who collapsed and died while waiting for an ambulance because she was not prioritised.
Sunak was left squirming but tried to put Starmer under pressure by raising the “anti-strike” minimum service levels bill – legislation that seeks to limit the impact of industrial action by ensuring there is some kind of service on strike days in six sectors (health, education, fire rescue, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning) – which Labour opposed. There are strong arguments against the bill. Striking workers, which currently include nurses, for example, could lose their protection from unfair dismissal; unions that fail to take “reasonable steps” to guarantee service levels could be sued.
Starmer could have used a succinct line to dismiss Sunak’s political attack. Instead, he stuck to his usual non-engagement strategy – which though frustrating for Labour activists, often serves the opposition leader well – and left it to backbenchers to denounce the “sack nurses” bill.
The state of the NHS, enfeebled by a decade of austerity and the pandemic, continues to be an open wound for Sunak’s government. Starmer made clear today that he plans to rip the plaster off at every opportunity.
[See also: How to save the NHS]