I speak in this important debate as a nurse who is still working in the NHS, although not as much as I would like. I welcome the sentiments from both sides of the House about working towards a much more cross-party way of discussing the NHS and health and social care, but I am nervous about setting up a commission, because much of this work has been done already and what we need to do is roll the solutions out, not discuss the issues again and rehearse old stories. I speak as a nurse now, not a politician. My feeling—and the feeling of a number of my colleagues in the NHS—is that the interventions by a series of Governments over decades have got the NHS to where it is now, and if healthcare professionals and social care managers had been allowed to get on with their job we would not be in that situation.
No healthcare professional would agree that health and social care should be as divided as it currently is. If we had been allowed to get on with our job many years ago, that gap would be a lot smaller. That gap was created when the NHS was invented. There was a natural gap between what was deemed healthcare and what was deemed social care. That was compounded by the Nurses Act 1949 which clearly set out the view of what a nurse did, as opposed to what social care did. Over time, with the invention of various bodies and structures, both national and local, those rigid boundaries between health and social care have become stronger.
Funding streams have emerged, with NHS funding being protected and ring-fenced and increased over time. Social care has not had that luxury. Its funding is mainly given to local authorities, which have had to merge it with other budgets and also make cuts. They have not ring-fenced it. Many hon. Members today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes
(Dr Wollaston) and Dr Whitford, have eloquently described how that has been a penny-wise and pound foolish approach, in that much of the preventive and public health work has been cut, with the NHS ultimately picking up the bill.
During my training as a nurse, we were taught an holistic model of care. We were taught that the patient’s physical care could not be separated from the emotional care, the spiritual care or the psychological care. However, when we practise in the real world, we are forced into separating physical care from mental health care and social care. When I was working on a ward, I would never question whether something was a nurse’s role or whether someone else should be doing it. If I was bathing a patient, getting them up in the morning or walking them in the hospital grounds so that they could get some fresh air, there was never a notion of “Is this the nurse’s role? Is this really healthcare?” It was all about looking after the patient as a whole.
As a result, when I was feeding someone, I was not only feeding them but looking at whether they had taken their medication that day, at whether they were eating, at whether they were perhaps a little bit more confused than they were yesterday or last week, and at whether there was an infection brewing. This is not just about ticking a box to say that that patient has been fed and had their medication. It is about holistic care, but the systems that are in place today do not allow us to practise that. In a hospital, we have the freedom to take on what is deemed a social role, but in the community we have no choice at all.
I know that things are changing, but we still see elderly patients who are struggling to stay at home, and they could have up to five visits a day from five separate people, and from five different people the following day. A nurse will go in to administer medication or to look after a catheter or a stoma, then someone else will come in to make a cup of tea or heat up a meal. There is no continuity of care, and there is no holistic care. That is simply because health budgets are run by the NHS and social care budgets are run by local authorities. It is no one’s fault; it is just the way that this has emerged.
I really welcome the work that has been done on NHS England’s “Five Year Forward View”. I also welcome the work of the Barker commission, which has not only identified the problem but come up with solutions and said that funding must be ring-fenced and combined. We cannot continue with separate funding for healthcare and social care. If we do, it will be a false economy and the constant divide will do nothing for patients and carers.
I welcome the notion of a commission and of cross-party working, but I am really nervous that we could undo much of the work that has been done. My local clinical commissioning group is doing fantastic work to ensure that the local authority and the local health services are starting to work together in a combined way. We hear a great deal about how hard it is to get social care packages together, and that is often why elderly patients get stuck in hospital. That is not always because of funding; it is often because we cannot get people to do the jobs. That is because there is no real reward in going in and having 15 minutes to make someone a cup of tea. It would be so much more rewarding if that person could have half an hour with the patient, in which they could help them to take their medication and not only make them a cup of tea but ensure that they drank it. However, the current system does not allow that to happen.
My nervousness about the commission is that we might undo many of the recommendations that we know need to be carried out, and that we could still be left with this divide between healthcare and social care a year down the line. The other cause of my nervousness is that a national one-size-fits-all model will not work. What works in my rural community of Lewes will be very different from what is needed in a London borough, for example. I therefore welcome the idea of local CCGs identifying what action is needed to merge health and social care and co-ordinating what will work best in that place.
Speaking as a politician, I urge other politicians to take a step back and allow health and social care professionals to take a lead on this. We have identified what the problems are and we have identified many of the solutions. We are committed to joint funding, so let’s get on and do it. Our role as politicians is to lobby if that funding does not come through, to enable healthcare professionals to get the resources they need. Our role is also to identify examples of good practice that could be rolled out in other areas where things might not be working so well. It is not our job constantly to debate what the issue is. We know what the issue is and we know what the solutions are. We just need to get on with it.
I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend Dr Lee. I do not dismiss the need for a commission. A commission on health and social care is a great idea, but I think the timing is wrong. I think we have missed the moment. We need to have a cross-party debate about the structure of the NHS and about perhaps having fewer specialist units. Cottage hospitals were mentioned earlier. There are problems getting people out of hospitals and preventing them from going into them in the first place, but holistic care would enable them to stay in their own home. There also needs to be a step in between being at home and being admitted. We have moved away from that, at a cost not only to patients but to those who work in the healthcare sector.
I shall not repeat much of what has been said this afternoon. I am very supportive of cross-party working; I believe that we need to take the NHS out of the game of political football. I welcome all the comments that have been made today; I do not think that anyone has said that health and social care should not be combined either in practice or in relation to funding. However, my fear is that another commission would simply delay the good work that is starting and that needs to be carried on. I thank Norman Lamb for bringing forward today’s debate. I hope that we will not be standing here again in five years’ time, debating the matter further.