It still doesn’t feel all that long ago that this country was stopped in its tracks by horrific TV news reports from inside Covid-ravaged Italian hospitals. What was happening there was about to happen here, and there was nothing we could do about it.
And now we are gripped by a similar feeling of helplessness for what is happening in our own hospitals. There doesn’t seem to be a single one who isn’t in the midst of an unimaginable crisis. Throughout the Christmas period, news reporters have simply stayed in and out of hospitals writing the horrors they are witnessing.
Ambulances lined up, simply hoping it would be possible to drop off their patients (and for every ambulance waiting outside a hospital, someone else is inevitably waiting for an ambulance, sometimes for days). The children screamed in pain for hours on end. There are reports, there are so many reports, of people going into cardiac arrest while waiting for care.
It goes without saying that this is not a sustainable situation. In this country, we have a morbid fascination with comparing our free health care at the point of delivery to the seemingly industrialized scam work that goes on in the United States, but, most unlikely of ways, they are becoming the same.
When I worked in New York in 2005, Columbia University, an Ivy League school that charges terrifying fees, had set up its own private ambulance service so college students wouldn’t have to call 911 in an emergency and potentially get through. the rest of their lives paying for it.
One morning I was awakened by the unusual sound of what turned out to be my roommate having an epileptic seizure for the first time in his life. I called an ambulance. The next morning, my coworkers told me that he was crazy for doing it. Fortunately, he, a fellow Brit, was fully covered by his travel insurance.
I say all this now because for the first time in my life, I suddenly feel that we are living in the same situation. During the cold snap of early December, I know of families who did not allow their young children to go sledding, for no other reason than fear that they might get hurt and there would be no one to treat them. On Christmas Day, when my daughter was very ill, I spent 55 minutes on hold at 111 before, thankfully, I know, having to give up and upset an old friend who was a pediatrician for a short time.
The E in A&E stands for emergency, and yet there seems to be no prospect of emergency care. This is a dramatic change in our way of life. The British like to imagine that the NHS is the envy of the world, even though no comparable country has really tried to copy it, and could. But for all its many flaws, including its Kafkaesque bureaucracy, it has always been the case that the British do not live their lives in fear of needing medical assistance, as is the case with so many others around the world. That’s still one of the highlights of British life, but it’s fading fast.
People seem to know, at this point, that the ambulance isn’t coming, that you might be better off attending to your children’s illnesses through Dr. Google or, if you’re lucky, informed friends.
It is remarkable that it has been allowed to get to this point. For the past few days, an old video from the 2016 campaign, produced by Vote Leave, has been making the rounds. It shows, in split screen, two fictional UK NHS hospitals, one imagining life outside the EU and the other inside. Of course, the Remain hospital is overrun. Brexit hospital is quiet, no queues, smiling old ladies are seen on time and return to their homes and happy lives.
It’s execrable crap, of course it is, but the fact that this kind of execrable crap has forced a country into the worst decision a major democracy has ever made should be enough to make all politicians realize that trashing the NHS is the safest way to go. road to electoral ruin.
Boris Johnson also won by talking nonsense about the number of new hospitals he was going to build. Rishi Sunak has absolutely no hope of winning if he cannot prevent the effective collapse of an emergency service without which the country cannot live.
It is not at all clear how he is going to do it. So far, all his spokesman has managed to say is that the NHS is struggling because the pandemic was so bad. There are other countries where the pandemic also happened, with other health services that have not collapsed in this way.
He was also asked if he would be happy for his own family to use the NHS. His spokeswoman said he was not “in the public interest” to answer that question. In a way he is right: the public is not interested in the answer, they already know it.
The problem Sunak faces in this area is the same as in so many others. He is not capable of giving an honest answer, a reality that he will not be able to change.