Whatever people like or dislike about the language, I do not think anyone could deny that the NHS at the moment is struggling to care for patients in the way that the hard-working staff in the NHS would like to be able to care for them and to deal with them as promptly as they would like. Everyone recognises that the NHS is managing to cope only because of its amazingly dedicated staff doing amounts of work and quality of work far above the call of duty. I have to say that a nurse from one of the two great hospitals in my constituency, to which the Secretary of State referred, said to me, “If he says how wonderful we are and then defends us not getting a pay increase, I will throw up.” I do not think she intended doing it in front of patients, but the hypocrisy of the approach she describes seems to me to be indefensible.
This situation is not entirely novel. A and E has been facing difficulties and has been overstretched in many parts of the country, even during the summer. That is largely because too many people are having to go to A and E or are being taken to A and E because they cannot be looked after properly at home. That is one of the main reasons. If people are kept in, there are not enough beds. I noticed that the Secretary of State quoted the King’s Fund. Having been interested in health care in London for 40-odd years, all I can say is that the main contribution of the King’s Fund has always been to demand reductions in the number of hospital beds; then, where there are not enough of them, it comes up with a million reasons why there are not enough—none of them being that there are too few beds; it is always some other factor rather than the shortage of beds itself that it manages to blame.
The reason why people, particularly the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled, have to go into hospital is that they cannot be safely looked after at home. Once they are in hospital and occupying a bed, they cannot safely be discharged home. So, they are brought in because there is no adequate care at home, and they cannot go back out of a hospital bed because there is no adequate care at home. The Government simply cannot get away from the fact that there have been massive reductions in care at home, particularly for the elderly. Logic suggests that if there are more elderly people who are chronically ill, there should be an expansion of the service to meet the increased need. In fact, however, services have been contracting.
The excellent work done by my hon. Friend Liz Kendall a fortnight ago—just a small aspect of it—demonstrated that there had been almost 200,000 fewer people getting meals on wheels. I do not know whether the Government ever deigned to consider the impact of that, but if old people who previously relied on meals on wheels were not getting them, they were probably no longer being properly fed, and if they were not being properly fed, they were more likely to need nursing care. If no additional care was available, they were more likely to go to A and E and, once they had gone into a hospital bed, they were less likely to be safely discharged simply because they were no longer getting meals on wheels.
The meals on wheels service does not have the function only of providing food. On every day that a person gets meals on wheels, somebody is checking how they are doing, and it gives those who are lonely some human contact. The disappearance of all those meals on wheels will undoubtedly have led to more elderly people having to go to A and E, and fewer elderly people being able to be treated safely at home.