The National Health Service is fast approaching its 65th anniversary. Treatment free at the point of need and dedicated staff have made the NHS Britain’s most treasured national institution. It now faces one of the biggest challenges in its history. With a rising population and people living much longer, politicians must give the NHS the support it needs to adapt to the challenges of 21st century Britain. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the policies of the Conservative-led government are causing lasting damage.
When the last Labour government left office in 2010, 98% of patients were treated in A&E departments within the four-hour target. Since the election, the number of people waiting over four hours has more than doubled, and ambulances queues have doubled as well. In Sunderland, we haven’t been immune to the crisis. Almost 4,000 patients at the Royal Hospital’s A&E department had to wait more than four hours to be treated. Since September there have been 27 weeks when the department hasn't met its target.
I’m deeply concerned by these figures. Last week in the House of Commons I asked the Prime Minister why he keeps making promises he cannot keep on the NHS. He promised there would be no more top-down reorganisations in the NHS before the election, but broke this pledge as soon as he was in power. He promised he wouldn’t lose control of A&E waiting times but they have sky-rocketed on his watch. Health ministers have blamed the cold winter for the rises in waiting times. Then they blamed GPs. Then it was all down to immigration. And finally, it was the patients’ fault. But massive government cuts to social care have put pressure on the services elderly and disabled people receive in their homes. Many patients are being forced to wait in hospital beds at the end of their treatment because the right support isn’t there at home. Rather than seeking to apportion blame elsewhere, the government should take responsibility and act now.
The crisis in care is not going to go away any time soon. We need an integrated approach to break down the barriers between health and social care. Physical, mental and social care should be brought together into a single service to meet all care needs – with services organised around patients, not patients around services. None of us know when we will need the NHS and its emergency services, but we should all feel confident that if the worst happens we will be treated without delay. The nurses, doctors and support staff who work in our hospitals do an amazing job under pressure. The government should not be making their work more difficult.