THE RED CROSS has had to step in to bail out the NHS from collapsing under the weight of government neglect. While Health Minister Jeremy Hunt keeps up the pretence that the new junior hospital doctors’ contract is going to deliver a seven day NHS, the service itself is struggling to cope from one day to the next.
NHS bosses are blaming a lack of social care for the problems. They say their beds are full of old people who are well enough to go home but who can’t, because the necessary care arrangements are not in place. This is where the Red Cross has stepped in. Its volunteers have been stepping in to provide social care so that elderly patients can be discharged. Although it is plugging the gap on an emergency basis, the Red Cross has made it clear that the Government should provide extra funding quickly so that the NHS can stabilise the situation.
In response to the calls for more social care, the Government allowed Councils to put a surcharge on last year’s Council Tax which was supposed to pay for more social care services. This was a fairly hopeless strategy, as the extra money had in fact to replace core government funding to local authorities, which had been cut back the same year. As the extra tax did not provide more social care, the Government started talking about allowing Councils to draw down some of the tax they hope to collect in future years in order to fund social care now.
The Council Tax surcharge was an extremely unfair move, as Council Tax is a higher proportion of poor people’s income than rich people’s income. It also obscures the other causes of problems in the NHS. Not least of these is that there are fewer hospital beds available: cuts have reduced the number of beds just as the population, particularly the proportion of elderly people, has increased. Local Trusts have had to cut back their services in order to keep up with payments due to multinational companies which ran PFI schemes introduced by past Labour Governments.
The scale of the problem is truly huge. A third of NHS Hospital Trusts in England have admitted they cannot cope with the number of patients who need treatment and have called for more government support. NHS England has offered nothing, claiming that measures to deal with the seasonal surge in demand are in place and that patient numbers are down on last year. However, in the first week of the New Year, 42 Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments had to send ambulances away to other hospitals – twice as many as happened at the same time last year.
Reports are starting to come in of patients waiting on trolleys in hospital corridors for hours on end – even overnight. West Herts Hospitals and the local Blackpool NHS have been tweeting appeals to local people to find alternatives to A&E unless there is a real emergency. The presidents of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and the Society for Acute Medicine have both admitted that the service is strained to breaking point.
The Red Cross has described the situation in the NHS as a “humanitarian emergency”. Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth MP, said that the help the charity was giving to hospitals “is just the latest staggering example of how the NHS is now being pushed to breaking point” and should be “a badge of shame for government ministers.”