On 6 February I spent six hours receiving excellent treatment from the haematology ‘Linc’ unit at Gloucester Royal Hospital. There appeared to be no staff shortages. In fact the place was extremely busy – as usual.
Outside the hospital there were a few dozen ‘strikers’ protesting. When I asked them how they arrange it with their departments, one nurse said they work out when they are least needed before leaving their work. So the strikes do not appear to be materially affecting patient care but are still demonstrating to a supportive public that the NHS is in dire straits.
NHS: a national treasure being plundered
We do tend to take our NHS for granted and assume they will cope, which they did for all those years of austerity and magnificently during Covid. But now staff are no longer able to manage. They see a national treasure being plundered and they have to take action.
Firstly there is the staff shortage, with nursing and medical vacancies over 133,000 and social care vacancies around 165,000, according to a parliamentary report. It is estimated by the House of Commons health and social care committee that we shall need an extra 475,000 jobs in health and 490,000 in social care by the early 2030’s. This situation was caused initially by lack of long-term workforce planning, especially training for doctors and nurses. Then many European staff left UK due to Brexit and later because of Covid. Added to this there is the lack of investment especially for the preventative technology seen in other developed countries.
So the nurses are not just striking for pay, they are striking because the NHS has reached a point where the staff shortage means that patient care is threatened. It is ironic that the government berates striking nurses for putting their patients at risk, when in fact it is the government’s lack of investment in staff and technology which is putting the whole concept of the NHS in danger. To use a medical analogy, striking may cause a few days of ‘acute’ problems, whereas if the government fails to address the nurses concerns, then the ‘chronic’ issues will kill the patient.
NHS now chronically ill
A ‘chronic’ condition requires a long-term plan and the government has put nothing on the table to address this. One symptom of this ‘chronic’ condition is that many staff are leaving the NHS because they can’t take the stress, wooed by a sunny stress-free life in Australia or New Zealand. Others are forced to take sick leave for stress; a quarter of the 1.5 million sick days taken by NHS staff in the West Country from 2020 to 2022 were for stress or anxiety. Another factor is that people are deterred from training to be a nurse by the cost. The government could solve this easily by waiving tuition fees for trainee nurses, although they rejected this in July 2020. They could even go a step further and give trainee nurses more ward experience during their training.
Other sectors of the NHS are under similar pressure. The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) warns of a “maternity crisis” with the “service haemorrhaging midwives at an alarming rate”. Similarly there is a ‘chronic’ (there’s that word again) shortage of community nurses which will not be addressed by the current recruitment process since most new nurses end up working in hospitals.
The NHS is a ‘national treasure’ and must be preserved at all cost. If the chancellor can afford to support the financial services sector which contributes so much to the financial health of Britain, surely he can spare a much lesser amount for our nurses and the real health of our nation.
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