Anyone who thinks the NHS isn’t in a state of collapse hasn’t been paying attention. This is the 75th year of the health service, and it is arguably its worst. Emergency doctors are now warning that A&E delays are ‘killing up to 500 people a week’. They say as many as 500 people could be dying each week because of delays in emergency care, with horrific individual stories about 99-hour waits and patients lying on the floors of A&Es. What is harder even for those who are paying attention to spot is what the government is doing to respond to this crisis.
Rishi Sunak has been worried about the NHS ever since he took over as Prime Minister, and long before. As Chancellor he took on the unremarkable position of every occupant of the role since 1948 by complaining about how much the service cost. Meanwhile he didn’t do a great deal about some of the key drivers of inefficiency that the government can change, including the crisis in social care. His own chancellor Jeremy Hunt is unusually sympathetic to the health service, given his previous roles as health secretary and chair of the health and social care select committee. It’s worth pointing out, though, that when I interviewed Hunt at the Cheltenham Literature Festival shortly before he became Chancellor, he told me that more money wasn’t going to stop a particularly bad winter crisis – it was essentially too late for that.
That is one of the political problems for the Tories: they can set off on reforms that will, in the long run, make it easier for patients to move through the system from emergency to long term social care. They can also change the amount of capital funding available so that hospitals (let alone the 40 ‘new hospitals’ that aren’t being built anyway) get the repairs and equipment they need.