VSCompare and contrast the following sets of statements, the first from Westminster. According to Health Secretary Sajid Javid: “We do not think the pressures currently facing the NHS are unsustainable. On the contrary, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the health service was on track for ‘shifting’ investments of nearly £ 6bn. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is urging the public to get vaccinated against Covid. It is, he says, “our way through this winter.”
From the front lines, the NHS is very different. The president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Katherine Henderson, said the A&E departments were “already struggling to cope”, even before reaching the depths of our second Covid winter. NHS Wales boss Dr Andrew Goodall warns that the next few months will be some of the most difficult we have ever faced. The country’s most experienced gynecologist, Dr Edward Morris, fears the coronavirus wave poses a direct threat to maternity wards, with operations canceled, specialist staff redeployed and an already huge backlog continues to build.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that politicians live in a parallel universe to NHS professionals. It is not just ministers who bravely confront it in front of the television cameras, examine the few drops at the bottom of the glass and happily declare it half full. The same week Mr Sunak presents his spending review, he and his colleagues drift into yet another round of Covid without showing the urgency or seriousness he demands.
Last week, as nearly 50,000 people a day fell with Covid, Cabinet Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg scoffed at the idea that he might wear a face mask in Parliament. While the government of which he is a member advises the wearing of face coverings in overcrowded places, the Commons leader said that the Conservatives enjoy a “friendly and fraternal spirit” far too important to comply with. None of his cabinet colleagues have so far disowned this statement, although if the number of cases increases, it will undoubtedly be cited to them over and over again.
Throughout this crisis, this government has displayed only a reluctant acceptance of the wearing of masks, social distancing and the rest of what are called non-pharmaceutical interventions. The ministers placed all their eggs in the basket marked “vaccines”, without preparing for what will happen when immunity to the sera wears off. And Mr Johnson has always preferred to make the management of any crisis a matter for someone else to deal with. Shortage of gasoline? The fault of motorists. Are the supermarket shelves empty? Stores should pay staff more. Covid? Personal responsibility. What is happening in the meantime or what is the role of his government are questions to be ignored.
The Prime Minister will undoubtedly highlight the billions his government is set to pour into the NHS, but the big problem is that few of them will help manage Covid. The money will not be available long after this brutal winter is over, and much of it will be spent on buildings and equipment. Yet the Health Foundation predicts the NHS needs 4,000 more doctors and 17,000 nurses each year just to clear its waiting list of 5.7 million patients.
Throughout this pandemic, the government has urged the public to protect the NHS, a reflection of the esteem and affection in which it is held. Now would be a good time for ministers to take their own advice, spending the money where it will do immediate good and treating this virus with the seriousness it deserves.