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29 July 2022

Three vital numbers are missing from the Tory leadership contest

As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss battle over tax cuts and earring prices, the NHS is collapsing.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Liz Truss’s Claire’s Accessories earrings: £4.50 (compared with Rishi Sunak’s £3,500 suit).

Sunak’s net favourability among swing voters: -25 (compared with Truss’s -45).

Unfunded tax cuts promised by Truss: £30bn (compared with Sunak’s £4.3bn VAT cut, which his team insists won’t add to national debt).

All numbers defining the Tory leadership election so far. All ignoring the three most important numbers of all: 9, 9 and 9.

Try dialling those now, if you think you or a loved one is having a stroke, say, and you could be left waiting two hours for an ambulance to arrive. The target response time for suspected strokes should be within 18 minutes. Last month, the average wait after such calls was 51 minutes.

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[See also: “It’s every 999 caller’s worst nightmare”: Why aren’t ambulances reaching people in time?]

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People are dying because of this, as I have reported for the New Statesman. One woman told me of her brother, left to die of an aneurysm at home. Another described how her two-year-old daughter fitted for two hours with no ambulance to pick her up – she had to drive her to hospital herself. A third, a breast cancer patient, was left suffering from suspected sepsis for seven hours.

Yet you wouldn’t know it from the Tory leadership contest. When a cancer patient asked Sunak and Truss why the NHS is broken during the TalkTV debate, neither had a clue.

Sunak spoke earnestly about his brave decision to raise national insurance to fund health and social care – something I’ve been told explicitly by NHS insiders will not help clear the backlog. Ambulance delays and bed shortages are down to underfunded social care provision, which the levy isn’t enough to fix. Extra funding for the NHS itself is useless without the workforce to match.

The NHS is beset with staff absences, sickness and shortages. England is short of 12,000 hospital doctors and more than 50,000 nurses and midwives, according to a new report by the Health and Social Care select committee. An extra 475,000 jobs will be needed in health and 490,000 jobs in social care by the next decade.

The number of full-time GPs fell by more than 700 over three years to March 2022, despite a government pledge for 6,000 more. Now, each GP is responsible for 2,200 patients on average (16 per cent more than when records began).

“Persistent understaffing in the NHS poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety, a situation compounded by the absence of a long-term plan by the government to tackle it,” said Jeremy Hunt MP, chair of the committee and (briefly) a Tory leadership rival.

Sunak, however, voted against regular government reporting on NHS workforce numbers and needs last November.

The response on the NHS from Truss was even weaker. She said “too often we’re directing and micromanaging people on the frontline”, calling for “fewer layers of management” and “less central direction”: the stock Tory response to anything going wrong in the NHS. Sunak too threw in an aim to “cut down on bureaucracy”, and mentioned “technology”, “surgical hubs” and “community diagnostic centres”, which would only help bring down waiting lists if they were adequately staffed.

Over 6.6 million people are waiting for treatment in hospital: a bleak record. This can put people’s lives on hold, make them sicker, and turn a non-urgent case into an emergency one. As one NHS consultant recently explained to me, if someone with backache has to wait months for physiotherapy, that’s a patient more likely to get dangerously hooked on painkillers.

[See also: “Frankly, people are dying”: The NHS spring crisis your higher taxes can’t solve]

GPs are also overwhelmed, meaning you’re likely to wait ten days before seeing one face-to-face. Even then, they may struggle to refer you to hospital: rejected referrals have shot up 87 per cent since before the pandemic. This means the target for receiving cancer treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral is being missed: just 65 per cent of patients are starting treatment within that vital window.

And the enormous logjam in NHS dentistry – with up to three-year waits – is even leading desperate people to extract their own teeth.

Yet in the safety of television studios and hustings halls across the country, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss appear oblivious to the crisis. The NHS may still be Britain’s national religion, but with either of them in charge we’ll need to do a lot more praying.

[See also: The rules of the new politics are simple: say nothing of substance, do nothing at all]

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