Once again, our national health service is in a winter crisis. Last week, nearly a quarter of patients waited in A&E for more than the four-hour target introduced by the last Labour government. Astonishingly, just one hospital in the whole of England hit the target. The number of patients being treated in under four hours is now the lowest it has been since the target was created.
This is not the fault of the NHS managers trying to keep the show on the road under great pressure. Still less is it the fault of the nurses and doctors who work miracles every day in our Accident and Emergency departments. It is the fault of the government, and especially government underfunding.
The government’s excuses have been increasingly pitiful. Yes, some people go into hospital with minor conditions – but this has always and will always happen. Yes, the NHS can achieve greater efficiency, and it is currently undertaking great efforts to do so. But greater efficiency cannot cure the disease of lack of resources. With an ageing population and higher inflation to deal with, the government has no choice but to devote more funding to health and social care.
Jeremy Hunt cannot run away from this. And he cannot get by for long pretending that the NHS’ woes are the fault of patients with the temerity to go to a hospital when they feel ill.
This makes it more important than ever that the government takes the plunge and commits to Vote Leave’s promise to spend £350m more a week on the NHS. Senior members of the current Government, like Boris Johnson, made this pledge a matter of months ago. And just this week, Vote Leave’s campaign director has revealed that, in the hours after Leave’s victory, Boris promised privately to immediately boost NHS funding if he became prime minister after David Cameron’s resignation.
With that money, which amounts to a whopping £18bn a year, we could seriously address the root causes of the A&E crisis: the cuts to GP services, which leave many people with relatively minor conditions with little choice other than to go to A&E; the lack of investment in social care, which leaves many older people “bed-blocking” in hospitals when they should be looked after at home; the deficits so many NHS trusts have fallen into, which make it near-impossible for them to invest in improving their A&E departments. This isn’t about funding for the sake of it. It’s about targeted interventions to pull our NHS back from the brink.
The prime minister, we are told, will be making a speech soon putting some more meat on the bones of her Brexit strategy. This would be the perfect opportunity to reassure the public on two of the biggest issues our country faces: Brexit, and the growing crisis in our NHS. She must commit to spending the £350m a week, or risk further deterioration in both our NHS and in the public’s trust in politics.
Chuka Umunna is MP for Streatham and chair of Vote Leave Watch.