The NHS’s 75th anniversary is on 5 July. It’s an extraordinary milestone for an extraordinary institution, which has improved the lives of millions of people since it first began. It’s right that we celebrate the day, because the NHS is a representation of so many good things. Health. Safety. Progress. Care, which is extended across the country and to every single person in their hour of need.
Yet the service is currently struggling enormously, under the weight of problems which have been building for years because of the decisions and actions of politicians. So alongside our celebrations it is imperative that we hold politicians to account. If they don’t change their behaviour, reverse their actions and rebuild our public healthcare system then it is unlikely to survive for another 75 years.
The problems in the NHS aren’t new. Since 2010 the government has squeezed the salaries of the workforce, failed to invest in important things, and the waiting lists started to grow long before the Covid-19 pandemic. We entered into that with over four million people already on waiting lists, and the pandemic of course made everything worse. In order to care for those people who were severely unwell with Covid-19, many appointments and operations had to be delayed or cancelled, and that has had a huge impact.
But coming out of the pandemic, politicians had an opportunity. They were warned by many healthcare experts and organisations that drastic action was needed, because the problems were spiralling, the workforce were under enormous pressure and patients were being failed. The government failed to take the action necessary. Instead, they pushed a bill through Parliament called the Health and Care Act 2022, a piece of legislation which has broken the NHS in England into 42 parts. Privatisation has been infiltrating the service for years and this Act has worsened things, breaking apart the essential architecture of our service further.
Instead of supporting the NHS workforce, listening to concerns and finding a way forward, the government has been locked in pay disputes for many months now. This is terrible for staff, whose real-terms pay cuts have been significant (so much so that many NHS Trusts now run their own food banks), but it is also terrible for patients.
The government should be doing everything they can to support the workforce and get the NHS waiting lists down. But the waiting lists are growing, despite Rishi Sunak’s promise in January that they were one of his top five priorities as prime minister. They are growing to terrifying lengths – the longest in the entire NHS’s history, with an estimated 7.4 million patients currently awaiting treatment in England alone.