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Patients and staff are at risk as the UK’s National Health Service faces funding cuts in real terms

Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) has been plunged by the Conservative government into an unprecedented crisis, putting the health, safety and lives of patients at risk and worsening the already dire situation facing staff.

A frontline nurse at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital told the World Socialist Website, “Most of the time, we are understaffed. Sometimes, even though we don’t have enough staff to care for patients in our own ward, we have to go and help in other wards. The emergency department is one of the most affected places. Their admissions have increased and they don’t have enough nurses. I can’t remember a day when we worked with our entire workforce. This means that patients’ treatment and care needs are often not met.

There are “dozens of COVID-19 patients across a number of wards and units in our trust. When we juggle for beds, it spreads further. No appropriate prevention and control measures are in place. Moreover, without enough staff, it is even very difficult to put into practice the limited measures we have. At one point last month, about 200 colleagues were absent due to COVID symptoms. Now it’s down to 65, but some of my colleagues are suffering from Long COVID. One of the hospital’s COVID wards was left in a “chaotic” state, they said, “This situation can cause serious harm to patients.”

National Health Service workers and air ambulance staff at a hospital in southern England, August 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

The same experience, if not worse, is being repeated across the country. A damning report by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee recently warned that the staffing crisis at NHS England posed a ‘serious risk to staff and patient safety’.

In England alone, there are 12,000 hospital doctors and more than 50,000 nurses and midwives short. The number of full-time equivalent GPs has also fallen by more than 700 in the three years to March 2022. Maternity services are ‘under unsustainable pressure’, with 552 midwives leaving the profession last year .

Ambulance services

Pressures on ambulance services are acute, with calls doubling since 2010 and far short of the necessary staff and resources in place. Last month, all ambulance trusts nationwide were placed on black alert, the highest level of escalation pressure.

Response times to emergency calls to 999 have increased, leading to enormous suffering and debilitating consequences, including the death of patients.

The Independent An online newspaper reported this month that police were dispatched to respond to medical emergencies. Andy Cooke, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, told the newspaper: “Recently officers in Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs) were dispatched to reports of people who were having cardiac arrest because the ambulance service could not not keep up with demand, because they’re trained in first aid and the use of defibrillators.

According to a survey by the GMB union, 35% of paramedics have been involved in cases where a patient’s death was linked to delays in service. The survey also found that 85 percent of paramedics had witnessed delays that seriously affected a patient’s recovery.

More than 80% of first responders felt the pressures caused them an unacceptable level of stress and 72% were considering leaving the service.

According to the GMB, the average response time for serious (Category 2) calls was 51 minutes in April 2022, down from 20 minutes a year earlier. This means that even patients with serious and urgent cases, such as strokes and chest pains, have to wait more than half an hour longer than the NHS target of 18 minutes for any help to arrive. Some patients had to wait two hours.

Staffing shortages in emergency departments, combined with lack of beds, have resulted in queues of ambulances outside hospitals waiting to deliver their patients, further delaying treatment. The West Midlands Ambulance Service reported crews lost nearly 40,000 hours in June due to transfer issues, with estimates for August approaching 50,000 hours.

The pandemic has exacerbated a long-standing lack of resources, with the operational standard of treating, transferring, discharging or admitting 95% of accident and emergency (A&E) participants within four hours not being met in England since 2015. Only 71% of patients in England were seen within four hours at A&E last month. Some 29,317 people had to wait more than 12 hours in England, setting a new record.

NHS waiting lists

Although the number of waits over two years has been reduced, thanks to a massive effort by NHS staff, there are still 6.73 million on waiting lists for elective surgeries and procedures, with this figure increasing by 100 000 in June alone. Of these, some 400,000 have been waiting for more than a year to be operated on for painful and debilitating, even life-threatening conditions.

While the delays mean months of misery for millions of people, private hospital owners have largely benefited. The NHS has referred thousands of patient operations to the private sector, while individuals have used their savings, taken out expensive loans or even used crowdfunding to pay for treatment.

Comparing the last three months of 2021 to the same period in 2019, before the pandemic hit, the biggest increases in self-funding were seen in Scotland (up 90%) and Wales (84% ), from which the Scottish National Party and the Labor Party were devolved. governments are responsible for health.

Cancer treatment

More than 10,000 cancer patients have been waiting three months for their treatments, at least one month behind the target. Only 60% start treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral to a GP, well below the target of 85%.

Professor Pat Price, an oncologist from Imperial College London, described the situation as ‘the worst cancer crisis of my life’. She told BBC Radio 4: “There will be tens of thousands of cancer patients dying unnecessarily.”

NHS England would have to work at 110% capacity for more than a year to catch up on these missing cancer treatments, according to the Macmillan charity.

Mental Health

Conservative-led governments have cut more than 1,500 mental health beds since 2010. Combined with severe staff shortages, this has created a dire situation for patients with mental health issues. Bed occupancy levels in mental health trusts consistently exceed 95%, while the security level is 85%. Shortages of beds and staff in a particular locality can mean that people with serious mental health problems are admitted to special units several hundred miles from their homes, making visits from family members or friends impossible in many cases.

Those waiting to access community health services face significant delays. According to data from NHS England, the number on the waiting list has risen to 1.2 million, from 1.08 million at the end of 2021.

The fight for a fully funded health service

The NHS on which millions of workers depend has been brought to the point of collapse by attacks from the Conservative Government over the past 12 years. These took place without the Labor Party lifting a finger in opposition.

The pandemic continues, adding pressure on an already overstretched service. As the government refuses to implement serious measures to suppress COVID-19, each successive wave infects millions of people, with large numbers of hospitalizations or suffering for months or even lifelong with Long COVID. With the imminent return to schools and universities after the summer holidays and the onset of colder weather in autumn and winter, infections and demands on the NHS will inexorably increase.

Vast sums of public money are being spent on shipping tons of heavy weapons to Ukraine as part of NATO’s proxy war against Russia, and on increasing military spending in general. Right-wing commentators rushed to declare the post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’ over and put what’s left of the NHS on the chopping block.

Already, the NHS Confederation, which represents the various trusts, warns that the health service faces a reduction in real terms of between £4bn and £9.4bn this year. The NHS is required to achieve ‘efficiency savings’ of 2.2%, double the requirement in recent years.

Health service unions, which represent more than a million workers, have overseen the worsening wages and working conditions of their members for more than a decade. Faced with a government-imposed 3% pay ‘rise’ – more like a 10% cut, accounting for inflation – unions are delaying ballots for industrial action until September or even longer late.

NHS workers can have no confidence that a fight will be fought by these discredited organisations. NHS Fightback, initiated by the Socialist Equality Party, calls for the formation of rank-and-file committees of workers to advance a real fight in defense of their interests and of the health service itself: for a massive increase in wages and conditions and the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of additional workers needed to staff a fully funded public health and welfare service for all.

Contact NHS Fightback today.