For me, the National Health Service (NHS) represents one of the things I love most about the UK. The ideals behind its creation by the Labour Government in 1948 are quintessentially British: fairness, equality, empathy, caring for all. The basic premise that everyone should be entitled to good, free healthcare regardless of background, status or income. The NHS has had its ups-and-downs but has remained true to its founding principles and continues to be the envy of countries across the world.
It is also unique amongst political decisions in enjoying the affection of people from across the class and political spectrum.
However, the NHS is facing its biggest ever challenge to its sustainability, with pressures on services leading the Red Cross to declare that the Service is facing a “humanitarian crisis”. And with reports of patients dying from dehydration on hospital wards, vital treatments being delayed, sick people left on trolleys in corridors, children forced to use make-shift beds, patients waiting for hours on end in A&E and life-saving operations being cancelled, it is hard to disagree with this assessment.
Whilst there are political arguments to be made about the NHS, it is also true to say that many of the pressures on the NHS are societal: whichever party was in power they would be dealing with an ageing population, limited financial resources, escalating pharmaceutical costs and global competition for skills.
However if we are going to ensure that the NHS (which is approaching its 70th birthday this year) is there to serve us for another 70 years, we must ensure that the current crisis and its causes are taken seriously.
Many of my constituents will have experienced difficulties in securing a GP appointment or having to wait far longer than the 4-hour government target to be seen in A&E, or had operations postponed. For some, this will only result in inconvenience, for others it can have disastrous consequences. I have shadowed hospital staff working in the Chesterfield Royal Hospital’s A&E Department and have seen the life-or-death decisions that have to be made on a daily basis. If our A&E departments are over-capacity and understaffed, it can lead to serious, life-threatening mistakes being made.
I recently met with Mr Simon Morritt, the new Chief Executive of the Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, to discuss the challenges the hospital is facing and how they are responding to the crisis. The Trust estimates that 30% of all patients in the A&E department shouldn’t be there and should be accessing their GP, Pharmacist or a specialist service. The Trust are working to ensure these patients are redirected to the correct services, and to improve the flow through A&E by ensuring patients are moved on to wards or discharged more quickly, to free up capacity in the department.
There are also around the same proportion of patients who are fit to leave hospital but are unable to because there is no care package ready to support them when they leave.
I am convinced that the Health and Care System must be brought closer together if that circle is to be squared. So the winter of 2017 will go down as one of the toughest in the history of our beloved Health Service. As Aneurin Bevan famously said, “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it”. If this year is to be an anomaly, not the start of a trend, the NHS will need us all to fight for it again.