The Tories are desperately trying to shift the blame for growing NHS waiting lists onto striking doctors.
Time spent waiting for routine hospital care in England last week hit yet another record high.
About 7.7 million patients had yet to start treatment at the end of July, a rise of more than 100,000 compared with the end of June, according to new NHS England figures.
That makes a mockery of prime minister Rishi Sunak’s promise that “NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly”.
When he made that pledge in January there were 7.3 million people waiting for a procedure—a new record. Instead of accepting that numbers waiting have risen sharply since the Tories returned to power in 2010, Sunak said strikes were to blame.
“We were making progress on bringing the overall numbers down,” he said. “What happened? We had industrial action, we’ve got strikes, and that is the reason that the waiting lists are going up.”
But that is nonsense. Even taking into account the strikes, the NHS is doing fewer operations, for example, than it was before the pandemic. And, that’s largely because there are too few health workers available.
Many planned procedures are cancelled on non-strike days because of a lack of operating theatre staff, but also because of the scarcity of nurses in post-operative care.
Doctors, radiographers, and others are striking precisely because years of low pay rises are driving people out of their jobs and stopping recruitment.
The British Medical Journal revealed last week that one in three medical students plan to quit the NHS within two years of graduating. They intend either to work abroad or abandon medicine altogether.
Poor pay, work-life balance and working conditions for doctors in Britain were the main factors cited by those who planned to emigrate. And conditions in the NHS are set only to get worse.
Finance bosses say the health service will overspend by £7 billion as inflation tears into its budgets. Even the meagre pay settlements already agreed were only partially funded by the government, meaning the rest has to come from “efficiency savings”. That means more cuts.
Much of the debt can be traced back to the years of austerity. But ministers have also been trying to claw back money that was put into the NHS during the height of the Covid pandemic.
Now with winter approaching, and a new wave of Covid infections already hitting hospitals, we are again heading for crisis.
The strikes, far from wrecking the NHS, are a desperate call from those on its frontlines for more staff, more resources and better care. We all need to get behind them.
- Consultant doctors were set to return to picket lines for 48 hours from Tuesday. Junior doctors were to join them on Wednesday, and then continue their own strike for another two days.