Back in the 1990’s the annual “winter crisis”in the NHS became something of a tradition, as a service struggling just to get by was tipped over the edge by the joint effects of colder weather and the flu season.
The papers would be full of stories of patients having to wait for hours on a trolley in A&E because of a shortage of hospital beds.
Large scale investment in the NHS by the last Labour Government seemed to have made these annual crises a thing of the past. But under the current Government’s disastrous handling of the NHS it looks like the crisis may not just be in winter but all year round.
Reports in the Star last week show that Ipswich Hospital A&E had its busiest week ever with nearly 1,750 patients. One day saw 300 patients attend - another new record.
So what is going on? Are we all becoming more accident prone?
One obvious reason is the decision to close the Riverside Minor Injuries Unit. The whole point of Riverside was to take the pressure off Ipswich Hospital A&E, so it was blindingly obvious that getting rid of Riverside would lead to many more patients going to A&E. We were badly let down by our MPs who didn’t speak up to save the Riverside.
But this isn’t just affecting Ipswich Hospital, it’s a nationwide problem. Hospitals are meant to see 95% of A&E patients within four hours. England’s major A&E units have failed to meet this target for an astonishing 52 weeks in a row.
So there must be bigger, countrywide issues involved too.
A&E is the NHS’s pressure valve. If things are going wrong somewhere else then more people end up there. A big increase in people attending A&E is a symptom of other problems, not the cause.
And there are plenty of problems elsewhere.
David Cameron came to office promising he’d “cut the deficit, not the NHS”and “no more top down reorganisation of the NHS”. These promises have both been broken fairly spectacularly. The NHS has been subjected to the biggest reorganisation in its history at a cost of £3 billion which could have been better spent on health care.
£1.6billion has been spent on making NHS staff redundant. At least 4,000 people who were made redundant have since returned to work elsewhere in the NHS.
Difficulties getting to see a GP are undoubtedly causing problems in A&E.
One of the first things David Cameron did when he became Prime Minister was to scrap Labour’s GP appointments guarantee. This had an immediate effect.
According to the latest NHS survey, nearly 50,000 people in Ipswich and Suffolk had to wait more than a week to see a GP the last time they tried. This is more than one in ten of all patients. Some people are obviously going to give up and go to A&E instead.
Clearly something needs to be done. Labour have said that they would invest £100 million in GP surgeries. The money would come from scrapping David Cameron’s NHS market rules - the ones he said he wouldn’t bring in - which are wasting millions on lawyers’fees and contract tendering. This would allow a guarantee of a GP appointment within 48 hours or on the same day for those who need it.
We were lucky last winter. Mild weather and the absence of a flu epidemic saved the NHS from the meltdown many were expecting.
Unless the Government takes urgent action, we may not be so lucky this year.