Some colleagues still tell me that Labour lost the 2015 general election because we placed too high a priority on the health service.
As current events are showing, from London to Copeland, the British public cares passionately about its NHS and is deeply concerned about the crisis in social care.
Yesterday Theresa May took part in what seemed to be a disastrous campaigning visit to the Cumbria by-election, where she failed to answer basic questions on the future of the local hospital.
And Cameron’s success 21 months ago was actually built upon the lie that the Tories were the party of aspiration and that only they could govern the economy effectively. Look where the country – and he – is now.
But the government largely does want talk about the mess they have made of the NHS. If they do engage on health, it’s with hollow statistics about how much they have allegedly invested, or to blame a national crisis on individual trusts and now even family doctors. Which suits them fine, as headlines about patients waiting on trolleys for hours gives them leverage to suggest that the only alternative is the private health care providers to which they and no doubt their families go.
Labour’s promises in 2015 to recruit more healthcare workers and repeal privatisation laws were right and proper – and while no one enjoys saying “I told you so”, the fact that we didn’t get elected has left our healthcare service in a right and proper mess.
You have read of course about the crisis in our hospital A&E departments. This has led to unprecedented criticism from organisations such as the British Red Cross and the Royal College of Physicians, that NHS services are “struggling or failing to cope” (though what would organisations with years of experience and knowledge know– the Tories don’t trust experts, right?)
But let me also give you the picture on-the-ground at primary care level, from one of the most disadvantaged areas of Britain.
According to the prime minister, the current healthcare crisis could be solved by getting surgeries to open all hours. Those who won’t, will have their funding cut. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt introduced a much vaunted but ultimately disastrous seven-day pilot to show how this would work in my area of Greater Manchester, amongst others. This despite the fact that GPs already work 24 hours-a-day and 365 day- per-year on call, and that some parts of the worth west have social enterprises which have provided out of hours care for over 20 years which are extremely popular with the public.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, the government needs to invest properly in primary care. Patients now have to wait 13 days on average to get a GP appointment. That is because since the coalition came to power, we have haemorrhaged the number of family doctors we have. Many are lured to countries such as Australia and Canada and who can blame them – there, they get to see patients for a longer time and they work shorter hours, so are less stressed. We have an ageing population; and debt and unemployment has created a much more anxious populace failed by inadequate mental health care investment.
Trusts are also sending patients into the community when they are not fit to leave hospital – largely to meet draconian government targets. Often within a few hours, we as GPs are treating them and returning them to the hospital from whence they came!
The vulnerable are being placed into the hands of a social care service that has been to cut to the bone and left demoralised. No wonder the people who it used to serve, are suffering and becoming isolated and ill.
The Tories’ trend for buck-passing extends to turning family doctors into assessors of sickness allowances and emergency dentists – because people feel they can’t afford dental care. The decimation of the unions means belligerent bosses are also now pressurising workers to get sick notes within a day or two or face the sack. And government’s failure to regulate personal injury specialists means that we are bombarded with paperwork in what has been described as, “Europe’s whiplash capital, Britain.”
A hard Brexit would mean an exodus of European workers and an inability to recruit more – and how laughable it is to see Hunt attempting to hire GPs from Croatia, Lithuania, Greece, Spain and Poland, before his Tory cronies draw the Brexit drawbridge up. Many of the staff we risk losing were recruited for specialist healthcare areas. Like GPs, such people are not trained in a day and how like the laissez-faire (which translated in Tory stands for, “do nothing and hope the problem goes away”) Government not to have prepared for that.
Whilst Hunt and May’s response to the ongoing crisis is to ditch four-hour A&E targets, create a few soundbites about mental health care, literally laugh at claims our NHS is facing a humanitarian crisis, or blame it all on individual inefficiency, UKIP’s new leader let slip his thoughts on the NHS. Though his party maintains it will invest in frontline services and keep the health service free at the point of delivery, the Mirror revealed that Paul Nuttall posted on his website back in 2014: “I would like to congratulate the coalition government for bringing a whiff of privatisation into the beleaguered National Health Service. I would argue that the very existence of the NHS stifles competition, and as competition drives quality and choice, innovation and improvements are restricted”.
Given UKIP’s stated aim of targeting traditional Labour working class strongholds, the need for us to re-own the NHS as our priority is imperative – we did, after all, invent it in 1948.
Our role should be to proactively champion and not just promise to protect the NHS. Morally, we have a duty to care for the sick and vulnerable and ensure equal healthcare provision for all. That last part is particularly important. Far from freeing-up local bodies such as clinical commissioning groups to make decisions, the current government’s fragmentation of the NHS has resulted in unequal provision – with affluent areas getting better results, surprise surprise.
We also need to be committed advocates for our healthcare staff who feel not just beleaguered by cuts but battered by the ubiquitous negative headlines. Every one of these should be countered by a proactive socialist response, whether on broadcast media or publicly by standing on picket lines supporting junior doctors or visiting nurses and offering them a listening ear, as the late Jo Cox did at Dewsbury Hospital.
Labour should not be afraid of making policy decisions to reinvest in our NHS, train more nurses, incentivise medical students to become GPs, make professions such as paramedic valued and attractive, and try to repair our social care service with increased investment. And we shouldn’t shy away from putting up taxes to fund our NHS. A recent YouGov poll showed that more than twice as many people support raising national insurance in order to boost NHS funding, than oppose it.
Nye Bevan creator of the NHS once said: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.” Right now the right are trying to put our health service to death. Only Labour can save and breathe new life into it and it is time we shouted and made our feelings known to a public sick of those who are trying to destroy our NHS.
Zahid Chauhan is a GP at the Medlock Medical Practice in Failsworth, Greater Manchester, and Labour councillor for Oldham council’s Alexandra Ward.