Labour is once again tasked with saving the NHS

The Labour MP for Tooting and A&E doctor explains how the next Labour government plans to rescue the NHS from Tory disrepair.  

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For the last 70 years, our National Health Service has been part of the fabric of our society, providing care and support to us during some of the most desperate days of our lives. However, the decisions made by successive Conservative-led governments have left our NHS underfunded and overwhelmed.

Since 2010, the number of people waiting longer than four hours in A&E has soared. In 2016-17, 2.5m people waited four hours or longer in A&E, compared to just over 350,000 in 2009-10. As an A&E doctor, I have seen first-hand the extreme pressures that our NHS has been under in the winter, and the effect this has had on all those who work within it and the patients who rely on it.

The issues start with patients’ access to GP appointments. One in four people now wait a week or more to see or speak to a GP or nurse. Sometimes, they don’t get an appointment at all. This has a massive knock-on effect on treatment times – waiting lists have soared with over 4m people in England waiting for treatment.

Cubicles are full because there is no space to move people onto wards. The wards are full because the social care system is completely inadequate in supporting people to return home. Just as we witnessed over Christmas, when all beds are taken, ambulances queue up outside hospitals. They are full of patients who can’t get the hospital care they need and paramedics who can’t do what they’re trained to, treating the next person who has called 999.

It makes my heart sink when I hear of ambulances stacking up outside hospitals. Patients are not getting the care and support they need, and our staff are having their hands tied. Labour has found that over the course of the winter crisis 100,000 patients were stuck in the back of ambulances for over 30 minutes, unable to be admitted into A&E, and leaving the paramedics unable to answer emergency calls.

The reality is that people are increasingly forced to come to A&E who shouldn’t have to be there. Patients who can’t access GP appointments, people who have had to wait too long for a hip replacement and are now in severe pain, queuing up together with the emergency cases – from heart attacks to road traffic accidents. It is simply too much for the resources that are currently provided.

A pressing crisis in mental health has been brewing for a number of years under this government. Spending on mental health fell by £600m between 2010 and 2015, and there are over 5,000 fewer mental health nurses today than in 2010. In my MP advice surgeries, I have had mothers come to me explaining that their families are being torn apart because their children cannot access the mental health treatment they so urgently need. Teachers locally have told me that eating disorders are on the rise and the age at which these symptoms are presenting is getting younger and younger. All the while, resources are being cut, and frontline medical staff in hospitals do not have the time to delve past the presenting problem to tackle the cause.

As a doctor in 2018, you often find that while you may have time to treat, you do not have time to cure. It goes against what we were trained to do – we were trained to cure a person, which stops the need for them to return, reduces queues, in the long run saving the NHS money. That is why I am pleased the Labour Party is committed to making sure that mental health is given the same priority as physical health; to ring-fencing mental health budgets and ensuring funding reaches the frontline.

The chronic shortage of hospital beds puts pressure on waiting lists and impacts the health of patients while they wait for operations. The shortage of operating theatres and resources forced the Prime Minister to tell the House of Commons that all non-emergency operations would be cancelled in January, further delaying long-awaited operations and adding yet more strain to emergency departments around the country. 

In the largely uneventful Cabinet reshuffle in January, “social care” was added to the Health Secretary’s title. One of the most significant pressures impacting our NHS is the lack of adequate social care and the fact that some local authorities across the UK are on the brink of bankruptcy. Cuts to adult social care budgets are expected to reach £6.3bn by the end of this financial year and the government has completely failed to set out a proper plan to fund it.

The government’s underfunding of social care is a false economy, owing to its negative impact on our NHS. People are unable to leave hospital because of the inadequacy of the social care system. Elderly patients in hospital beds have told me that they feel like a burden because they have nowhere to go where they will receive adequate care. This is symptomatic of a failing system.

The success of our NHS hinges on the political choices of the government.The two fundamental political choices that have led to a perfect storm are the Lansley Health and Social Care Act 2012 and the lack of adequate funding. The Lansley Act was slammed at the time by many, including people within the Conservative Party. Many professionals, Department of Health officials, and fellow MPs I speak to agree that it has been a disaster.

The restructuring that has taken place across our NHS over recent years has led to enormous fragmentation across the board, with private sector providers contracted out to deliver parts of local services. NHS staff work day-in, day-out, to care for people during the worst days of their lives, but that job is becoming increasingly harder as wards are crumbling around them. Labour plans to halt and review the government’s Sustainability and Transformation Plans, and to involve local people to ensure that any future changes will focus on patients’ needs.

Labour’s plans for the future of our NHS sadly have to again repair the damage caused by a Conservative government. We have done it before and we will rise to the challenge again for the benefit of patients and staff. We will take one million people off waiting lists and guarantee that patients can be seen within four hours in A&E, ensuring that safe staffing levels are enshrined in law.

Our NHS is ingrained in our society and its success is down to the doctors, nurses, porters and countless other staff who work extremely hard to deliver the best service they can. For them it is a vocation and for Labour it is part of our inherent philosophy. We will save it again by taking it off life support and into a healthier future for us all.