Nobody should be under any illusions as to the reason for mounting pressure on the health service, argues Ken Livingstone – it’s government policy.
OVER the past months we have seen a stream of stats and reports showing the extent of the mounting problems facing the NHS due to Tory austerity, which has meant cuts and persistent underfunding, and the accompanying crisis in social care.
These are a consequence of the largest financial squeeze in the NHS’s history, meaning that by 2018 NHS spending per head will be falling.
The government is driving through £22 billion in cuts by 2020 and the NHS is already short of 50,000 front-line staff.
And as campaigners and trade unions warned, the Health and Social Care Act has both opened to door to systematic privatisation and wrought damage on our NHS and social care.
To give a few key statistics, in October the number of people waiting four hours or longer in major A&E departments was 214,617 compared to 46,467 in October 2010. 1.8 million people waited too long in 2015-16 compared to 353,617 in 2009/10.
The number of patients being left to wait on trolleys for four hours or longer has increased by over 600 per cent.
The number on the waiting list in England is estimated at 3.9 million.
Just one of the UK’s 13 ambulance services is able to meet the target of reaching emergencies within eight minutes.
A recent report from the Nuffield Trust warned of the pressure on beds in the NHS during the winter at the same time as older people are being trapped on hospital wards, with implications for both bed availability and care of patients, as they are unable to return home due to lack of social care provision.
A record numbers of patients in the NHS are delayed on discharge and one third of those are due to lack of social care.
Indeed, accompanying the crisis in the NHS itself there is an ever-deepening crisis of social care, with one in 10 people over 50 not having their care needs met.
Meanwhile, the Tories continue to bury their heads in the sand, refusing to find a single penny of extra cash for the NHS or social care in this winter’s Autumn Statement.
With regards to recent announcements on social care, as Barbara Keeley MP, shadow cabinet member for social care, has said: “There is a crisis in the funding of social care caused by savage Tory cuts to the budgets of local councils — £4.6 billion has been cut from adult social care since 2010, meaning 400,000 fewer people now have publicly funded care … asking taxpayers and councils to pick up the bill for the Tories’ failure is no substitute for a proper plan.”
The austerity project as a whole also makes pressures worse on the NHS and social care, due to increases in inequality and poverty.
To give one shocking example, the number of hospital beds take by patients being treated for malnutrition has trebled in recent years.
Furthermore, the Tories expect the NHS to find £22bn of further “efficiency savings” through the so-called “sustainability and transformation” plans (STPs) — slash, trash and privatise as the Unite union has branded them — which many believe will lead to further closures and cuts in front-line care.
In order to distract from these problems, both in terms of the NHS and the broader failures of austerity, the Tories are playing a dangerous game.
They are fuelling and exploiting the rise in xenophobia to create an anti-foreigner distraction from their mishandling of the economy and the EU referendum.
As Diane Abbott described it: “The crisis of NHS funding? Blame foreigners.
“How will we secure funding for our universities? Blame foreigners.
“How do we address the crisis of productivity and low wages? Blame foreigners.”
There have been two specific examples of this anti-foreigner agenda moving into the political discourse around the NHS.
One was the plan to require patients to show their passports before receiving treatment in order to claw back money from so-called “NHS tourists” who the Tories seek to deflect some of the blame of the funding crisis onto.
Labour warned that this could lead to “racial profiling” in hospitals and the British Medical Association said that “showing your passport before undergoing treatment” was going too far.
In fact, the best estimates suggest unrecovered costs from treating foreign nationals account for less than 0.2 per cent of the NHS budget.
A government-commissioned 2013 report found it “impossible to estimate with confidence” the cost to taxpayers.
The other was Jeremy Hunt’s proposal to rid the NHS of foreign workers at Tory Party conference.
Hunt’s plan is to increase the number of UK-trained doctors by 1,500 per year. There are 100,000 overseas doctors in the country, according to the General Medical Council, so just replacing these would take 66 years!
But such fantasies do have a political benefit for the Tories — they distract from their failures in government, directing anger away from those who caused the economic crash and those who have since failed us with the ideologically driven austerity agenda.
In contrast to the Tories, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign last summer pledged Labour to give the NHS the money it needs, and to join up services in a holistic approach with a properly integrated health and social care service.
It is more important than ever for us to fight for a Labour government that will both stand up for our health service and fund the NHS properly.
And we urgently need to take on the dangerous scapegoating and lies that seek to blame some of the most vulnerable people in our society for the problems and difficulties austerity has caused.
First published in the Morning Star