Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate.
With the rising number of patients—particularly frail elderly people—the cost of treatments increasing, and also, very importantly, the severe lack of funding, our much loved health service is under truly severe pressure. I pay tribute to NHS staff for the vital work they do despite that enormous pressure. I would very much like to record my appreciation for them tonight.
I will address three issues: first, the scale of the challenge in health; secondly, the Government’s damaging approach; and thirdly, the need for real change. It is no exaggeration to say that the scale of the challenge facing our health service is quite simply enormous. This is partly because of the considerable changes taking place as our population gets older and people live longer. It is a very good thing that life expectancy is increasing, and we are all obviously grateful for that. However, a growing number of frail older people need appropriate care and support, and that care must be properly funded. In addition, medical science is advancing very rapidly, offering wonderful new and life-changing treatments, but again, those new treatments need to be supported by the necessary level of funding.
There are additional local challenges in some parts of the country. For example, in my constituency of Reading East we face particularly intense pressure in terms of staff recruitment and retention because of the high cost of housing and as more people move into our part of the Thames valley. NHS staff in our area face higher than average living costs—arguably similar to costs for people living in outer London, but with no London weighting. I want to return to that important point about resources.
Secondly, I am afraid that the Government are quite simply failing to respond to the scale of the challenge. Ministers have offered warm words, but fundamentally, they are failing to provide the necessary investment. My hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth is right when he talks about the crisis in the NHS and the fact that every single measure of NHS performance is going the wrong way. For example, in my seat, A&E waits have risen dramatically—and they are A&E waits of more than 12 hours; I am not even going into waits that breached the four-hour target. In the Royal Berkshire Hospital, those waits increased by around five times in one year, between 2016-17 and 2017-18, which are the latest recorded figures. Conveniently for the Government, Ministers have decided to move the target rather than measure it.
We have also lost two GP surgeries, which is the tip of a very big iceberg in primary care in our area and across the country. These are surgeries where GPs are retiring, and there is a lack of new GPs coming on stream to replace them. In one case, local residents have had to move to a GP surgery in a different county, several miles away. Others have had to move to surgeries across our town. For frail, elderly people, that can involve a change of bus routes, difficulties in getting to see their GP and considerable additional problems in accessing primary care.
On top of that, many other services are under enormous pressure. To make things even worse, there is a deeply damaging privatisation agenda, which I heard about from my hon. Friend Anneliese Dodds, affecting Reading and many neighbouring towns in our area. To make matters even worse than that, we have a ridiculous situation where the Government are pressing ahead with a hard Brexit—or something that resembles it closely—which is driving away highly skilled NHS staff. Around 14% of the staff at my local hospital are from the EU. Can anyone imagine how difficult recruitment could be in a very short space of time?
Thirdly, we need real change. That means significant long-term increases in investment, not just warm words and playing with statistics to create a misleading impression about the level of funding. If the Government really believe in the NHS, they need to demonstrate that with their actions and policy choices, rather than just making vague promises that they are unlikely to deliver.