NHS: From ‘record high’ satisfaction to ‘breaking point’ within four years of coalition government

The NHS was in excellent shape when Labour left office in 2010; now it isn't. For this the coalition must take at least some of the blame.

The NHS was in excellent shape when Labour left office in 2010; now it isn’t. For this the coalition must take some of the blame

When the newspapers are singing from the same hymn sheet you know something really significant has occurred. And so it is on the NHS, with all of the big papers leading today on yesterday’s disastrous A&E waiting time figures – the worst for a decade.

Predictably, the Conservatives refuse to accept that their reforms and cuts have anything to do with the sharp fall in the performance of the NHS.

And important it is to recognise that this is a sharp fall. Compare for instance, the above image with the following news report from March 2011:

NHS 2011 (2)

Quite a contrast, isn’t it?

And focusing on A&E specifically, there is good reason for the change in perceptions: since 2010/11 the performance of the A&E service has fallen sharply.

nhs graph

As the graph demonstrates, something has happened to A&E since 2011 which has resulted in waiting times increasing.

It’s worth noting too that, while 92.6 per cent of patients are now waiting in A&E for less than four hours, that figure is an average – in some places, such as Cambridge for example according to yesterday’s figures, as many as a quarter of patients are waiting for more than four hours in A&E.

There are probably two main reasons for this drop in performance levels.

The first relates to how increasingly difficult it is to secure an appointment with a GP. The blame for this cannot be attributed solely to the coalition as the GP contract has not changed significantly since the previous government. There is also something of a recruitment crisis in GP practices, with fewer people seemingly wanting to become GPs.

That said, coalition policies have played their part. 50 million patients will be turned away from GP surgeries this year because of government underfunding, according to the Royal College OF General Practitioners. The coalition also put £400m less into GP services in 2012 than Labour did in its final year in office, according to research by the Royal College of General Practitioners.

And perhaps more damning, since 2010 the number of family doctors per 100,000 people has fallen to 66.5 – down from 70 in 2010.

The other major factor is the abolition of NHS Direct and its replacement with the inferior 111 service. Having used both, the superiority of the NHS Direct system is obvious: the old service used a trained health professional to provide expert advice; the 111 service features a staff member (not medically trained) reeling off a list of questions before referring you on to someone else (or passing the buck, in other words). The old service inspired confidence whereas the new service does not.

Because these are out-of-hours services, when patients do not receive a satisfactory service their next port of call is A&E – often people turn up simply because they have no where else to go.

What is clear is that the government cannot wash its hand of the crisis nor do what it is so fond of doing and blame it all on the ‘mess left behind’ by Labour. The NHS was in excellent shape when Labour left office in 2010; now it isn’t. For this the coalition must take a portion of the blame.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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