Recent reports regarding the NHS crisis have made uncomfortable reading. Unfortunately, they seem to have become an annual tradition. I have heard reports of hospitals being overwhelmed with the number of patients arriving. We should not be reading reports of people waiting for treatment on trolleys for hours in 21st century Britain; our hospitals are places of healing, not warzones. No one wishes to create a crisis of confidence in our health service, but everyone wishes to see the dedicated NHS staff properly supported.
We have had some good news in our area, with the announcement that the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust (covering Royal Blackburn and Burnley General Hospitals) has been upgraded to ‘good’ by the Care Quality Commission. I know that the staff at every level have worked exceptionally hard to turn the trust around, and I’m confident that they will continue to do so in the future.
However, the brilliant staff face huge challenges even after their recent achievement. Unfortunately, it is clear that the Government have failed to provide adequate support to the health service. In 2015, George Osborne cut £200 million from public health budgets, which was followed by a 3.9% real-terms cut in the Autumn statement.
There will also be cuts to funding for community pharmacies, and Labour figures show that Blackburn constituency is at risk of losing over 10 pharmacies. The loss of community resources like pharmacies will only serve to drive up the number of people using other NHS services. This means more demand on GPs, A&E, walk-in centres or via NHS phone services and will place a greater strain on the NHS.
By cutting other public health budgets, notably in Adult Social Care, the Government has increased the strain on the NHS, storing up crises for the future. Properly funding local government health and social services would reduce the strain on GPs and A&E in the long term. I recently asked what Ministers were doing to find the gap – which in Blackburn with Darwen alone exceeds £2.5 million. They gave no answer. However, we have now seen the Government’s plan – tell local Councils to increase Council Tax by a further 3% - make the hard pressed Tax payer foot the bill even more.
This year is truly the acid test for social care. It is a system in crisis and one which urgently needs a sustainable financial footing. Over the last Parliament, the Tories cut £4.6 billion from the social care budget; as a result, they spend less now than Labour spent in government, despite demand for the service rising. Nationally the funding gap now stands at £1.9 billion, a staggering figure.
The paucity of social care funding is directly affecting our NHS. The ongoing crisis means patients are forced to stay in hospitals for weeks or months because the care they need in the community simply does not exist. The effect on the NHS finances is dire; hospitals in England ended the last financial year with a deficit of £2.45 billion. Almost 1.5 million more people are waiting four hours or more in A&E compared to 2009/10. One in four people had to wait a week or more to be seen or speak to somebody.
Patients able to benefit from social care are not only being better served by social care services, not only more comfortable and able to benefit from a system designed to help, but they cost the NHS less money. Proper funding for social care would reduce the demand on the wider NHS.
That the Red Cross has been called in to support the NHS shows that this is worse than the traditional rise in demand over winter. Members of the public are experiencing delays and reporting heart-breaking scenes inside hospitals. Instead of trying to fix the crisis, the government have been determined to deflect all blame and criticism.
I congratulate the staff at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust on achieving the recent upgrade and I hope that their hard work is not jeopardised by further underinvestment.