Britain’s National Health Service is in crisis.
The publicly-funded healthcare system, which has been part-and-parcel of British life since its foundation in 1948, has faced its worst winter crisis in more than 30 years. A combination of a severe flu outbreak, cold weather, an aging population, and high levels of respiratory disease has left the system near breaking point.
Patients have spoken of 12-hour waits at emergency rooms, ambulances have been left queuing outside hospitals, and doctors have said they’re being forced to treat patients with “battlefield medicine” and called the conditions “third world”. Meanwhile the NHS’ medical director, Sir Bruce Keogh, on Tuesday cancelled 50,000 non-urgent operations planned for January in a bid to ease pressure on the overwhelmed system.
…battlefield medicine. For next few weeks it won’t be exception but norm. That we’re retaining any semblance of kindness, politeness and teamwork is testament to our remarkable staff. But it’s TOUGH, and it’s SO hard to do things well when ED’s >200% of capacity #NHSCrisis #NHS
— Anu Mitra (@AcmeDR) January 2, 2018
After previously denying that there was a crisis, Prime Minister Theresa May apologized for the delays in service on Thursday. “I know it’s difficult, I know it’s frustrating, I know it’s disappointing for people, and I apologize,” she said. Meanwhile, Britain’s widely-hated health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, also issued a grovelling apology on TV for the cancellation of the 50,000 operations, and promised an extra $475 million worth of funding.
Conservative politicians and media in the United States have never been shy about wading into another country’s health care problems to explain the perils of socialized medicine — who can forget Rick Santorum claiming that the Dutch were murdering their elderly patients — and this crisis is no different.
Right-wing outlets like Townhall, The Washington Free Beacon, and Breitbart all reported how the backlog of operations show how utterly delusional calls for a single-payer system in the United States are. “Do we think Americans are going to stand for a system in which government officials cancel surgeries en masse based on bureaucratic judgments about what is urgent?” opined the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein.
It’s not wrong to report on how the NHS is nearing breaking point. But it is wrong to conveniently omit one of, if not the major factor driving this crisis: years of austerity, championed by the Conservative Party, which have cut Britain’s health care, police, and social services to the bone.
Theresa May’s apology isn’t enough. We’ve had years of dogmatic austerity in our NHS, cuts to social care and privatisation. Patients are suffering. We won’t let Tories dismantle the NHS. pic.twitter.com/s2k6GYacRd
— Jonathan Ashworth (@JonAshworth) January 5, 2018
The austerity program was introduced by the Conservatives under then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010, as a response to the 2008 financial crisis and a burgeoning government deficit. NHS and education funding were supposed to be protected from the worst of the cuts, but this has just acted as a cover for chronic, severe under-funding.
As the BBC reported, from 2010 to 2015, the Conservative government dramatically slowed down health care spending increases. But an aging population, higher life expectancy, and rising cost of drugs also mean that more money needs to be spent on health care. As a result, an unprecedented number of hospitals in England are facing financial deficits. In 2015, Conservatives also promised $1.2 billion worth of NHS funding, but that money has instead gone to private-sector health care providers.
At the same time, the NHS has been tasked more and more with dealing with mental health — an area which was savagely cut by the austerity program. As the Huffington Post reported, the number of young people arriving to Accident & Emergency wards with mental health problems doubled from 2009 to 2017, while the number of mental health practitioners declined by nearly 3,000 in 2016. Overall, the crisis is so bad that a recent study by the British Medical Journal suggested that the Conservative austerity program could be linked to 120,000 deaths.
If all this wasn’t enough, the beleaguered NHS also has to face up to the challenge of Brexit, an idea championed by an ideologically-driven faction within the Conservative Party, right-wing British tabloids, and right-wing British politician Nigel Farage. Leaving Europe will make it harder and costlier and costlier for the UK to recruit nurses and doctors from the continent, who make up a substantial portion of NHS staff across the country — and nearly 14 percent in London alone. Their uncertain status as EU citizens in the new, post-Brexit Britain, makes it even more likely that they’ll return back to Europe — further damaging the NHS.
When Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn won 30 seats in the June election, his critics were confounded. But part of what made Corbyn so popular was a deep resentment of the austerity politics practiced by successive Conservative governments and the effect that they had had on public services.
“What’s happened is people have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics; they’ve had quite enough of cuts to public expenditure, under-funding our health service, under-funding our schools and our education service,” he said in his victory speech. “I’m very proud of the results that our coming in all over the country tonight, of people voting for hope…and turning their backs on austerity.”
It’s austerity that’s driving the NHS crisis. And Corbyn’s victory showed British voters want a re-investment in their dreaded “socialist” health care system.