Socialist Worker

Plenty of excuses, not enough money

Issue No. 1679

NHS in crisis

Plenty of excuses, not enough money

THE GOVERNMENT is hiding behind the stories of a flu epidemic to try to cover up its failure to fund the NHS. Health minister Alan Milburn called the outbreak "particularly nasty". The government's chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, said the crisis was "of epidemic proportions".

The government has even turned to blaming patients for the crisis. Elderly people are condemned for not getting flu jabs. Government adverts tell us to "treat yourself at home" or ring NHS Direct rather than to go to a GP or to hospital. But there are high levels of flu every year after Christmas. This time last year flu levels peaked at 277 cases per 100,000 people, approximately the same level as today.

People are dying and suffering for one reason-because of the devastating effects of this government's negligent lack of NHS spending. As east London GP Dr Kambiz Boomla explains, "There is a lot of flu about, but this is predictable for this time of year. It's not like we've been hit by a hurricane that you couldn't forsee. The crisis is hitting because of a lack of nurses, cutbacks in beds and because of the government waiting list initiative. There just isn't the capacity to deal with surges in demand for beds."

In the 1980s NHS bed occupancy rates were 75 percent, which enabled the service to deal with a sudden rise in the number of patients. Now bed occupancy rates are running at 95 percent. Any slight change from the norm pushes the system over the edge into chaos. On one day last week there were just 11 available intensive care beds out of 1,500 across Britain.

Scandalously, the number of "acute" beds has been slashed by nearly 40 percent since 1982. As health campaigner Elizabeth Manero says, "The NHS appears quite simply to have shrunk-shrunk too far to cope with the predictable periods when more people are likely to need its services."

The government's refusal to fund the health service means it can only cope by cutting back on other services. As Dr Boomla says, "The government is responding with emergency measures over the flu, but at the expense of stopping routine surgery. That means patients will be discharged early or inappropriately and waiting lists will get longer."

By refusing to tax the rich and invest public money in the NHS this New Labour government is jeopardising people's lives and wellbeing, and ransacking the very health service it promised to save.


"THE word epidemic is being used to justify the fact that the NHS is under severe pressure. It is under severe pressure throughout the year because of under-resourcing."

  • IAN BOGLE, GP and chair of the British Medical Association

Profit's priority

THE government has not only failed to reverse the Tories' chronic underfunding of the health service. It has also encouraged private firms to have more say in the running of our hospitals. Trusts are slashing beds and staff to maximise profits.

According to the doctors' British Medical Association, PFI schemes will cut the number of NHS beds by a massive 31 percent over the next three to five years. "What the government describes as the largest hospital building programme in the history of the NHS is being funded by the largest acute hospital closure programme," says the BMA.


Angry nurse speaks out

"THE government talks about the crisis as if it were all about statistics and making ministers look good. But this is about people's lives. Elderly people are dying because they are frail and poor. They have bad diets and inadequate heating so flu just wipes them out. In the hospitals people are suffering because staff are run off their feet and can't care for them properly. Patients have to suffer not only from the physical symptoms but from the indignity of waiting in corridors, being shoved aside as if their feelings didn't matter. Last week I saw an elderly man in his 80s bowing his head, trying to hide the fact he was crying. I later discovered he'd been waiting over ten hours to be seen. His daughter had had to persuade him to come to hospital in the first place."

  • SALLY RODELL, staff nurse, Dunstable

Direct line leads to danger and chaos

NEW LABOUR health minister Alan Milburn claims that the NHS is "coping tremendously well" with the latest winter crisis. He touts schemes such as NHS Direct, which encourages patients to ring up a call centre for advice before they visit their GP or hospital. But the government's new scheme is a gimmick which has hindered rather than helped a solution to the crisis.

NHS Direct runs adverts which actively discourage people from going to hospital. One advert features a bottle of pills which says, "Treat yourself at home". It tells you to consult a pharmacist or to ring NHS Direct before going to your doctor. Patients are advised to go to hospital only if they "need urgent hospital treatment" and to call an ambulance only in an emergency such as "loss of consciousness".

Of course, having a helpline that people can ring could be a good idea if it was an extra service. But NHS Direct is being used as a substitute for proper funding of the health service. That is why the government is extending the scheme to cover over 65 percent of England. It is also urging GP surgeries to use NHS Direct to determine whether patients need to be visited at home.

NHS Direct has already taken some 600 fully trained nurses out of hospital wards to work in its 17 call centres around Britain. These trained nurses have yet to be replaced. In an NHS starved of money and resources NHS Direct and similar schemes preach a dangerous message which can only discourage those who are ill from seeking the treatment they may urgently need.

Patients are made to feel guilty for going to the doctor and may ignore symptoms that could be the first signs of a serious illness. These schemes also encourage people to diagnose themselves. But often people with no medical training or experience can get things terribly wrong. Yet New Labour is insidiously selling us the message that it is our fault for clogging up the GP surgeries and casualty wards.


Shortages and cuts

  • There is still a shortage of 15,000 nurses, despite the government's promises to step up nurse recruitment. The head of the Intensive Care Society, Dr Peter Night ingale, blames low pay. "These nurses have done a great deal of training and they want a proper salary and a good career structure, but it's not available."
  • The government insists that NHS trusts make "efficiency savings" of 3 percent a year.

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Thu 13 Jan 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1679
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