Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona, Unsplash

Nobody cares more about the NHS than its staff – they’re striking to save it

Just before Christmas my dad was blue lighted to our local Accident and Emergency department from his nursing home. It was a day when nurses were on strike and just before ambulance workers’ first strike since 1989 – definitely not a day my dad, a staunch union man, would have chosen. Nearly 75 years on from the creation of the NHS, how did we get here?

My dad is 89 years old. At the very end of 2019, at 86, he had his first ever stay in an NHS hospital.  Not because he used private healthcare, but because the only time before that was before the NHS existed. 

In 1943, when my dad was ten, he was admitted to hospital with a case of ‘poison leg’ – clearly not the medical term. The cause is lost in the mists of time, as is the actual diagnosis, but the result was a ten day stay in hospital. 1943 was also pre-antibiotics; the treatment for infection was regular poultices. Infections were one of the main causes of death for young children. 

My grandad was an electrician who worked at Lots Road Power Station, by the river in Chelsea, that powered the Tube throughout the Blitz. My dad’s mum worked in a shop on the King’s Road. They had 4 children and were working class – like so many of us today, they were unable to pay an unexpected large bill. So, in order to afford my dad’s hospital stay, Grandad withdrew a chunk of his pension savings to get his 10 year old son treatment. 

What choice did he have? If he hadn’t, my dad would have been denied treatment. Obviously, this reduced my grandad’s pension income when he did retire, which had a lasting impact on his life. He did manage to continue living in Chelsea, thanks to the development of social housing in the postwar period. Like us, he thought that the days of bankrupting yourself for necessary medical care, or dying of preventable illnesses, were over.

The wait at A&E was long. My dad had a three hour wait in two different ambulances, a five hour wait in a ‘makeshift ward’ – in reality, the corridor outside majors and resus – where two paramedics were supporting up to 7 patients as they waited to be seen. Between helping patients, the staff apologised to my dad and I. Some even said they were embarrassed about the state of the system. 

What’s frustrating is that this crisis has been clearly building for years. NHS staff have been warning, constantly, that the NHS has been systematically underfunded since 2010. Funding has been decoupled from increasing demand, leaving hospitals in deficit and operating close to 100% capacity at all times.  Sporadic boosts have failed to replace massive real-terms cuts in capital spend, leaving failing infrastructure, shortages of equipment and beds, and no money for preventive or community care. The result has been a steady, avoidable increase in staff workload as staff shortages grew to 62,000 in December last year – a record number of unfilled jobs.

It’s impossible to work in these conditions. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine have warned that December 2022 was the worst on record, that between 300 and 500 people are dying each week due to delays in urgent care. The staff are clear: they’re striking because people are dying.

But, it will be claimed, we don’t have the money to pay nurses and ambulance workers what they need to live on, or to end the shortages. Yet the money is there. Since 2010, the NHS waiting list has grown from below 2.5 million to 6.5 million. In the same time, our research found billionaire wealth grew from £205 billion to £653 billion. Simple changes to tax wealth could raise up to £37bn annually, according to Tax Justice – enough to pay staff, fix the maintenance backlog, and increase funding per patient. Even just collecting dodged taxes from the richest would be enough to do urgent repairs and fund the pay increase for nearly 4 years.

Speaking in the House of Lords, Natalie Bennett made these same points, citing our research. Where has the money gone? Sitting uselessly, unearned, in the offshore bank accounts of billionaires.

In A&E, one thing was clear: the amount of support staff had from patients and their carers. During those long hours waiting there were no voices raised, no complaints – but there were repeated statements of support and solidarity for the nurses and ambulance workers, and the stance they are taking to save our NHS. 

This government has badly misjudged the mood of the country. We support our NHS and ambulance workers and we support the action they are taking to try and claw back the health service from the brink after decades of poor policy making.

Wealth inequality in the UK is already appalling. If we lose our NHS the human cost of that inequality will become even more stark. 

Jo Wittams, Co-Exective Director of the Equality Trust