I thank my noble friend Lord Darzi for initiating this debate and I thank Nye Bevan for his towering achievement in setting up the NHS against concerted opposition—a miracle for those who had no money.
We still expect the NHS to cure all our social ills while tackling permanent supply and demand challenges. Government-imposed changes in legislation, reorganisation and financial stop/start policies make it difficult to plan for the long term and apply consistent recruitment and training policies.
If there is a chronic shortage of doctors, we import them. The Royal College of Physicians says that we are currently training only half the number of doctors required by 2030 and the cap on medical school places means that we reject half of all eligible applicants— 770 of them with at least three straight grade A’s at A-level. While I am not trying to correlate the possession of three A-levels with suitability, we should be training more in the UK. Instead, 700 rejected medical student applicants a year are studying to be doctors in the eight English-language medical institutions set up in former eastern bloc countries. This is crazy, and it is the responsibility of the Government. The recent announcement of more places is too little, too late.
The NHS cannot solve all our social ills. We do not have a proper social care system, and that has an immediate impact on hospital beds. Our GP system has been weakened to the extent that many patients do not have a hope of seeing their local doctor when they need to. There were 1 million hospital visits last year because of drug or alcohol usage. The human cost of obesity is appalling, but so is the cost to the health service which has to pay for larger stretchers, beds and mortuary places.
It is vital that we improve transparency and accountability in our NHS. The Government abolished the independent review panels in 2004 and the recently established Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch plans to cover only 30 cases a year. Will the Minister say how the Government intend to invest in independent reviews, deal with complaints and protect whistleblowers?
The advances in medicine in the past 70 years are almost beyond belief. Some of the potential breakthroughs are exciting. One drug is being made from the strain of cannabis grown legally under Home Office licence. It has a high concentration of anti-convulsant and very low content of THC, the psychoactive compound. If approved, it could help up to 5,000 people with epilepsy. Research has shown that metformin, an anti-diabetes pill, also cuts the number of heart attacks, strokes and heart failures. Researchers call that repurposing.
Finally, I thank the BBC and ITV for their coverage of the 70th birthday of the NHS and for all the programmes that have been enjoyable, historical and absorbing. They have been inspiring and have made me realise that any future attacks on the health service will be met by an army of fierce defenders, all of whom have a story to tell.