Boris Johnson looking inside an ambulance with a paramedic during a visit to London Ambulance Service. Photo: Pippa Fowles/Flickr

Despite scientists warning of the danger of a second wave, the government continues to leave the NHS unequipped and underfunded, writes Alia Butt

The NHS was in serious crisis before the covid-19 pandemic became the world’s main cause of concern. As winter approached last year the problems caused by years of austerity cuts and the government’s ambition to privatise much of the NHS had led to the incredible number of 5,549 people dying on trolleys waiting for beds.

Many have been warning of catastrophic eventualities for some time. If anyone was in any doubt about the scale of the threat of privatisation, in July the Department of Health and Social Care’s Annual report for 2018-19 revealed that record levels of NHS money has gone to private healthcare firms. £9.2bn of public funds have been going to private providers such the Priory Mental Health Group, Virgin Care and other private hospital chains. In fact, the Tories have never been in favour of a national health service, voting against its conception 21 times before it was finally set up.

The result has been that the NHS was unprepared for the pandemic. The prospect of a pandemic was not secret, nor was the fact that underfunding was taking us further away from having an NHS capable of dealing with such a crisis. Due to austerity cuts, vital resources needed for a pandemic were stripped out of the service and much of the stored PPE was out of date.

These kind of grave errors have led to the UK having the highest death rate in Europe and the second highest number of health worker deaths worldwide, disproportionately affecting  BAME communities. This approach left unchallenged will continue to cost large numbers of unnecessary deaths.

The damage done

The covid-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on the NHS. It has led to the suspension of the vast majority of non covid-related procedures. Many of these services are not due to restart until May next year. The mismanagement of the pandemic could be responsible for example for approximately 35,000 extra cancer deaths as radiotherapy machines that could have saved lives had been lying idle.

The case of Professor Val Curtis who is the director of the environmental health group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is unfortunately typical. She was diagnosed with vaginal cancer and despite begging for an earlier appointment had to wait 62 days after her diagnosis before receiving vital radiotherapy; this was the ‘waiting list target’.

Val explained that she began her cancer journey with some faith in the NHS, only to have that shattered as her illness became more and more critical. Val has spoken about her expectation of her life coming to an end soon. This is an experience she has linked to that of many thousands of people in England who have had their lives cut short due to the insufficient care they received in the NHS. The NHS has been cut down to its very core, stripped back in many ways, now unable to provide anything close to adequate healthcare. 

The government have now promised 3 billion pounds for the NHS. Given the hundreds of billions of pounds the government is pumping into the economy, this is unimpressive. Even if we were not in the throes of a pandemic, this number is not a huge relief to anyone who knows anything about the deprivation of services across the board. To make matters worse, the head of NHS England Sir Simon Stevens has been discussing figures with the treasury and has expressed his desire to secure funding to ‘deal with private hospitals’, indicating that patient and staff care come second to the drive to appease private companies. 

A failed response

All this has to be seen against the backdrop of a disastrous general government response to covid-19.

If the lockdown had been put in place even a week earlier, thousands of lives could have been saved and there would have been less pressure on the NHS. The premature lifting of the lockdown and the fact that we are only now seeing legislation requiring the public to wear masks underlines once again the irresponsibility of the government’s response.

Johnson is now launching his 9 month plan for easing lockdown, even though there is a second wave on the cards. He is urging people to get back into the workplace, despite his chief scientific advisor making it clear there is no need for people to stop working from home.

Many are calling on the government to help the NHS prepare for a potential second wave, with scientists estimating a range of between 24,500 and 251,000 virus-related deaths in hospitals alone. Despite Johnson’s insistence that our service is ‘world beating’, an effective track and trace system is still a distant fantasy. We currently risk the UK’s R value – the average number of people who will catch the disease from an infected person – doubling from around 0.9 on 14 July to 1.7 in September.

As staff, many of us are painfully aware of these realities. However, it is now more important than ever for us to communicate better and to organise more effectively. NHS Staff Voices is having a public organising meeting on July 28 in order to push this process forward.

Despite Britain’s appalling record – including 65,000 excess deaths – demands for PPE are still not being met. Care homes and hospitals need stocks of PPE, an extensive testing, tracing and isolating system must be put in place and a coherent national policy must be developed to reduce the risk of a second wave of infection and deaths. On Tuesday July 28 we will be meeting to continue discussions regarding how we can address this as workers. If you work in the NHS, please join us.


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