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The coronavirus crisis has reaffirmed what Labour has always stated: that the NHS is the jewel of our country’s public services. We are beyond fortunate to have such brilliant and dedicated doctors, nurses and support staff, including cleaners, from around the world who are working for us in the health service—such as the student nurses from the University of Chester’s Warrington campus who have stepped up as part of the national effort and should be commended.
I begin by paying tribute to two of those staff whose lives were tragically cut short during the pandemic, and whose loss is keenly felt by their colleagues and across our community: Andy Collier, a nurse practitioner at Hollins Park Hospital in Warrington, and Joselito Habab, known as Jo to his colleagues, a nurse at Warrington Hospital. May their memories forever be a blessing.
We have been fortunate that heroic efforts have so far ensured that the critical care bed capacity has not been overwhelmed, and I hope we are now better prepared for the threat of an additional wave this winter. Critical care capacity at Warrington Hospital is now five times the normal capacity—an extraordinary undertaking by everyone involved—but we know that routine care has suffered, as well as admissions and treatment for stroke, cancer and heart attacks. The patient transfer list for planned procedures in Warrington has grown massively, and it is estimated that it could take up to 18 months to get completely back to normal. I would like the Government to support hospital trusts and CCGs to work collaboratively on regional patient transfer lists to better manage elective care capacity and ensure that we do not keep patients waiting any longer than necessary.
We face a huge cancer diagnostic backlog of 2.4 million people waiting for cancer screening, further tests or cancer treatment, and 93% of histopathology departments are understaffed. We know that early intervention in cancer care has a dramatic impact on health outcomes. Research by University College London and DATA-CAN, a health research hub for cancer diagnosis and treatment, suggests that there will be almost 18,000 excess cancer deaths next year.
Before the pandemic, the NHS and the social care system had significant staffing shortages. Stress levels for NHS staff were at a five-year high and only a third of staff felt that staffing levels were sufficient. Social care has one of the highest turnovers of any sector and a quarter of staff are on zero-hours contracts. A lasting consequence of covid must be more than memories of clapping; we must improve the pay and working conditions of NHS and care staff.
The mental health challenge will be an enduring problem of this covid period. In spite of Government promises, mental health is still underfunded in the UK. The King’s Fund estimates that mental health problems account for 23% of the burden of disease in the United Kingdom, but addressing that still makes up only about 10% of Department of Health and Social Care spend. Alarmingly, Mind says that almost a quarter of people who tried to access mental health support in early June failed to get any help.
I praise the efforts of mental health staff at North West Boroughs Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and in the voluntary sector in Warrington at an extraordinarily difficult time, but it is clear that more investment and focus is needed. Covid has affected, and will continue to affect, every part of our lives. It has forced us to change our entire way of living. Coming out of it will give us the opportunity to make changes to our society for the better. That must start with our health service.