Challenges for the NHS

Last weekend the British Red Cross seized national headlines with the claim that the NHS is facing a “humanitarian crisis”.  No-one disputes that the NHS is under great pressure, but this choice of words was surely overblown.

Such sensationalism devalues the words needed to describe true humanitarian crises, such as the tragic suffering and loss of life in Aleppo.

The NHS is undoubtedly facing unprecedented demands.  The Tuesday after Christmas was the busiest day in its history, and some hospitals are reporting that A&E attendances are up to 30 per cent higher than last year.

The service is facing a number of big trends - population growth, an ageing population and rising costs of treatment.

In just six years, the number of people aged over 80 has risen by 340,000 and life expectancy has risen by 12 months.

The Government remains committed to the target of a four hour maximum wait in A&E.  But as the Health Secretary pointed out, since that target was announced in 2000, there are nearly 9 million more visits to A&Es, nearly a third of which do not have to be made.

Of course, people go to A&E because they do not want to wait to see their GP, while people are not discharged from hospital because of pressures on social care.  So part of the solution must be to ensure that GPs and social care are adequately resourced to meet rising demand, too.

But while it is easy to call for more resources, it is harder to find them.  Six years after “austerity” began, the country is still running a budget deficit, spending more each year than we are earning.

The largest budgets in government are all protected - health, pensions, defence and schools, meaning that other budgets have to be cut.

Despite the deficit, since 2010 spending has been increased each year on the NHS.  This has enabled 10,000 more doctors and over 10,600 additional nurses to be recruited.  The Government is committed to increase funding further, by £10 billion a year by 2020.

If still more resources for both the NHS and social care are to be found in future years, we will have to have a sensible discussion as to how this will be achieved.

We can’t just go on borrowing to fund extra spending today, because all we are doing is loading the bill on taxpayers tomorrow.


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Nick Herbert