UK Politics

Not even a pandemic will make the government respect the NHS

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There was always something slightly off about seeing images of Boris Johnson and the rest of the Cabinet clap for careers during the first wave of the pandemic. For me, it seemed superficial, as it could never make up for the lack of PPE, and a decade of austerity that had crippled the NHS. Those in power applauded Captain Tom’s efforts, a former British Army officer who raised over £30 million for the NHS because, of course, it saved them from dipping into the government purse. But it shouldn’t have taken the efforts of a 100-year-old veteran to provide a boost to the health service.

The next wave of superficial support for the NHS came with Rishi Sunak’s Spring Budget, which announced a pitiful 1% pay increase for NHS nurses who have been the backbone of this pandemic. Additionally, it is a budget completely void of spending on social care and broader NHS funding. This comes after a decade of NHS cuts and the worst health crisis in a generation. Which begs the question, what would it actually take for this government to respect the NHS by giving it the financial help it deserves? 

Despite a year-long pandemic and a healthcare system under strain with the continued impact of Covid-19, alongside a backlog of missed treatments, routine operations and screenings, Rishi Sunak offered no additional funding for the NHS. The BMA (British Medical Association) has drawn attention to what the Chancellor said last year when stating he would give the NHS “whatever” it needed to get through the pandemic – which proved to be another false promise. 

Writing to the Chancellor ahead of the budget, the BMA highlighted the need for an increase in core funding for the NHS beyond 2021-2022 of at least 4.1%. But currently, the government has no plans to increase funding, social care provision, or NHS workers’ salary. Boris Johnson was so eager to celebrate the efforts of Jenny McGee and Luis Pitarma when he was in hospital with Covid last year. Still, his government cannot even bring itself to give nurses the proper pay rise they deserve. A mere 1% increase in the salary of nurses works out at about £3.50 per week. But the government continues to defend its decision along the lines of affordability, 

“We do have issues of the affordability because of the consequences of the pandemic on the public finances, which were set out in the budget this week.” – Matt Hancock 

By keeping to this line of argument, the NHS veers closer to taking industrial action, which could cause widespread disruption, just when the country is looking to recover after a yearlong pandemic. Despite the NHS being on its knees, the government has shown us their true colours when it comes to respecting this “country’s greatest national asset.” 

The government’s appreciation of the NHS is all words and no action. Despite it being a different Cabinet that orchestrated the decade long cuts to our health service, it appears this line of thought is set to continue during the recovery stage. But we cannot let them get away with leading us into the worst health crisis in a century, with an NHS already on its knees. 

Between 2009-2019, the NHS budgets rose on average to just 1.4% a year, compared to a 3.7% average rise since the NHS began. Furthermore, the NHS budget has not been protected, and the result was ten years’ worth of cuts to frontline services. In real terms, this means they are running at too fewer doctors, midwives, paramedics and nurses. And they have fewer beds and doctors per head than many other comparable countries – all occurring before the pandemic even began. How could we ever have hoped to come out of this pandemic relatively unscarred? 

The government’s lack of funding for the NHS and the insulting pay rise of 1% to nurses show how much they undervalue it. But perhaps that’s the whole point – will this be the first stage in the gradual, slow privatisation we all fear? After all, companies like Virgin continue to win big contracts to run NHS services for profit. Furthermore, those who have experienced delayed treatments and who can afford to go private are because the NHS does not have the current capacity or reserves. 

And so we have it. The government loves to celebrate the NHS with symbolic gestures like the clap and telling us to stay at home to “protect the NHS”. Still, when it comes down to it, they will never cough up and give it the financial support it so deserves. It couldn’t even take the experience of a pandemic for them to realise it is a vital asset to the health of the nation. Furthermore, neither could a decade of underfunding that contributed towards the UK having the fourth worst death toll from Covid-19 in the world, based on deaths per million. Will they ever wake up? 

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