Last week the Red Cross published a statement that claimed the country is facing a humanitarian crisis. In doing so they served to highlight more issues with the country’s healthcare system, amongst them that 62 out of 152 trusts claim mounting bed shortages and consequently increased waiting times in A&E. It has since been revealed that performance against the four-hour target has sunk to record-lows since the target’s introduction in 2004. With now dozens of hospitals declaring black alert – which means an inability to guarantee patient safety – the Red Cross’ statement seems not an unreasonable one.
But the reaction of the governing party was one of blinkered deflection. Theresa May did recognise that there is a ‘problem’ but in her PMQs this week she accused the Red Cross of making an ‘irresponsible and overblown’ conclusion and claimed that demand is responsible for the problem. As ever, she sounded insincere and artificial. The problem is not only that the government is refusing to recognise that what the NHS needs is not privatisation, retraction in funding or imposing increasingly unreasonable demands on those that work within the healthcare system but that this issue, raised on Monday, has, amongst many, been subsumed and shelved as Brexit continues to dominate the headlines.
The same day as the humanitarian crisis was revealed, Theresa May spoke of mental health emergency care and first aid training for those who work with young people. Significantly lacking in funding and still paralysed by stigma, the mental health services in this country desperately need dramatic action to improve accessibility in inpatient, outpatient and community settings. Given that the mental health trusts have seen their budgets cut successively for three years, this was a necessary and important suggestion. That said, first aid training is not really tackling the bigger issues: it is a tiny, tiny response to something much more catastrophic. The powerhouse of the country does not have to issue uncontroversial promises in order to pacify a problem. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.
In which case, what should the government do? Should it reverse its core philosophy in minimal taxation accompanied by minimal public expenditure in order to channel funding into the National Health Service? The healthcare system in this country does not need to crumble – it was part of a progressive, forward-thinking and ethical programme of reform following years of the worst war in British history. Not only does it continue to deliver fantastic care, but it represents a much more important legacy of Bevin, Attlee and all those other liberal thinkers of the 1950s generation who all believed that it meet the needs of everyone, that it be free at the point of delivery and that it was based on need not on money. It represented hopefulness and morality, a state willing to help its citizens, ordinary people were promised healthiness and happiness, values that we would associate as central to what remains of a national identity. In a time of global insecurity, of relentlessly bleak news surely, rather than allowing the tangible infrastructure that was built on these values to deteriorate into tired, inefficient services, the government should be preserving them. The first step is to recognise some responsibility and subscribe to the optimism of the 1950s. The next is to put sentiment into action, to reinvent politics as an agent of change, rather than a platform for dispute and denial.