Anyone who thinks the NHS isn’t collapsed hasn’t been paying attention. This is the 75th year of the health service, and arguably its worst. ER doctors are now warning that A&E delays are “killing up to 500 people a week.” They say up to 500 people could be dying every week due to delays in emergency care, with horrific individual stories of 99-hour waits and patients dumped on A&E floors. What is more difficult even for those who are paying attention to the spot is what the government is doing to respond to this crisis.
Rishi Sunak has been worried on the NHS since he took office as Prime Minister, and long before. As chancellor, he assumed the unremarkable position of all incumbents since 1948 by complaining about how much the service cost. Meanwhile, he didn’t do much about some of the major drivers of inefficiency that government can change, including the crisis in social care. His own chancellor Jeremy Hunt is extraordinarily supporter of the health service, given his previous roles as health secretary and chair of the health and social care select committee. However, it is worth noting that when I interviewed Hunt at the Cheltenham Literature Festival shortly before he became Chancellor, he told me that more money was not going to stop a particularly bad winter crisis; basically, it was too late for that.
That is one of the political problems for the Tories: they can undertake reforms that will, in the long run, make it easier for patients to move through the system from emergency social care to long-term social care. They can also change the amount of capital funds available for hospitals (not to mention the 40 ‘new hospitals’ that aren’t being built anyway) to get the repairs and equipment they need. But few of these measures are going to have a noticeable impact in a short period of time, the kind of period the Tories have before the next election.
Now, it is not the first time that the National Health Service it has been in a terrible state of collapse in the run up to the election. At the turn of the millennium, the health service was in the headlines for the same reason it has been this winter: collapse and tragic loss of life. One of the cases that drew public attention was that of Mavis Skeet, who died in June 2000 after an operation for esophageal cancer was repeatedly cancelled. This case and several others so scared New Labor that they went to the 2001 election with a plan to bail out the NHS.
Perhaps the Tories are planning to imitate the Labor bailout. They could do much worse. But the difference now is that the Conservatives have been in power for more than a decade. Labor was seeking a term for the second time, having spent his first term speaking repeatedly about repairing the damage done to the NHS by the last Conservative government. The Conservatives did not have that narrative about the health service in 2010, and in 2023 it seems ridiculous to blame the current chaos on the last Labor government given that there are teenagers who have lived their entire lives without that party in power. So why trust the government, even if it presents an impressive plan now?