‘My hospital is full of Covid patients. I’m tired of being a nurse. My cupboards only have foodbank food. I have no petrol. I’m frightened to put the heating on.’
On February 21, Boris Johnson lauded the lifting of all remaining Covid restrictions in England as a “moment of great pride.” Following the government’s abandonment of all mitigation measures, health secretary Sajid Javid said that a rise in Covid infections was to be ‘expected’, claiming, perversely, that the UK is in a ‘very good position.’
A month later, the hospital admission rate of Covid-19-confirmed patients in England increased to 17.89 per 100,000 people in the week ending 20 March 2022.
‘Perfect storm’ of issues
A ‘perfect storm’ of issues, including rising Covid rates and staff shortages, are pushing exhausted staff to breaking point and are leaving the nation’s healthcare system in a precarious state. It is hardly surprising therefore that fatigued, overworked NHS staff listened to Javid’s remarks with “utter disgust.”
Research shows that due to financial pressures, over a third (39%) of nurses have skipped meals in order to feed their family or save money, while 64% of nursing staff admit to working overtime to pay bills. One nurse described the situation in the NHS as “absolutely dire.”
As frontline NHS workers like nurses are forced to use foodbanks as the cost-of-living spirals, and the chancellor promised to “support the British people as they deal with the rising costs of energy,” many were looking to Rishi Sunak’s spring statement as the only way to help them out of the financial hole.
Sadly, Wednesday’s statement failed to provide for those bearing the brunt of the financial crisis, like NHS workers whose morale is currently at rock bottom.
Tinkering round the edge adjustments
Making ‘tinkering round the edge’ adjustments, including raising the primary national insurance threshold from the planned £9,800 to £12,570, while concurrently levying an additional 1.25% NI increase on workers, this week’s statement fails to deal with the immediate crisis.
Prior to the statement, dozens of NHS doctors and nurses descended on Parliament donning Rishi Sunak masks to protest the proposed NHS pay offer. The health staff rode on an open-top bus before finishing at No 10 to deliver a petition signed by more than 178,000 people demanding more funding for the health service.
Among the campaigners was Holly Johnston, an NHS nurse and member of campaign group NHS Workers Say No, who said: “We have seen the devastating impact of an underfunded and understaffed service on patient safety throughout the pandemic and before it.
“NHS staff and patients deserve more, and we need to see investment in the NHS to safeguard its future. The only true solution would be for it to be fully publicly owned. The health of the nation is suffering, and underfunding has meant that health inequality has worsened. NHS staff can see the damage being done to the NHS and that is why we have one in three staff wanting to quit.”
No additional funding for the NHS
Despite their efforts, no additional funding for the NHS was pledged in the spring budget statement.
NHS staff and groups have been sharing their disappointment at the lack of support they desperately need.
In response to statement, British Medical Association (BMA) council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “Given the unprecedented pressure that the NHS is currently under, with patients experiencing life-threatening waits for care and a serious workforce crisis in the NHS, it is disappointing that the government has failed to listen to our concerns around under-investment in our recent letter to the chancellor.
‘While the government has retained its commitment to boost NHS funding through the Health and Social Care Levy, we were disappointed that there was no mention of how they would fund the extra £7bn needed to clear the current backlog.”
Deputy chief executive of Londonwide London Medical Committee (LMC) Dr Lisa Harrod-Rothwell, referred to the biggest challenge facing GP practices in London and beyond is capacity.
“We have too few GPs and nurses and too much demand,” said the doctor, adding: “Whilst the solution to this is not solely financial, the absence of anything new for general practice is an insult to an already demoralised workforce, and shows Londoners that the government has no plan to support their local GP practices to meet the backlog of care that has built up throughout the pandemic.”
The Health Foundation predicts that household incomes will now fall by 2.2% in real-terms in the coming year. Its director Jo Bibby said the government “has yet to fully grasp the pandemic’s stark lesson that health and wealth are fundamentally intertwined.”
“A government that truly valued the nation’s health would have gone further today to protect the most vulnerable families from this latest economic shock. The increase to National Insurance thresholds is significant but fails to target the poorest households,” Bibby continued.
RCN warns fuel duty cuts don’t go far enough
In its reaction to the spring statement, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) reiterated demands for an urgent review of NHS mileage rates.
Prior to the statement, the RCN had demanded the chancellor took urgent action to address the issue of NHS mileage rates.
Responding to Sunak’s announcement that fuel duty will be cut by 5p per litre, which motoring groups estimate will take around £3.30 off the cost of filing a family car, the RCN said the measure doesn’t go far enough to help the likes of community nurses who say the price of a full tank of fuel has increased by as much as £100 a month.
RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said: “Nursing staff will feel extremely short-changed by this statement. The cost-of-living crisis means some are having to choose between filling up their cars and feeding their children.
“Today’s fuel measures are not enough to stop nursing staff subsidising the NHS when they fill up their car. When community nursing staff drive great distances to see their patients, giving vital care, this is not enough action.”
Sharing her disbelief to the pitiful measures announced by the chancellor this week, one worn-out NHS nurse tweeted:
“I wanted to tweet something witty regarding Sunak’s Spring Slaughter. But I can’t. My hospital is full of Covid patients. I’m tired of being a nurse. My cupboards only have foodbank food. I have no petrol. I’m frightened to put the heating on. Not in the mood to be witty.”
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward