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 thank Faisal Rashid for bringing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow Siobhain McDonagh. The Minister will not be able to answer all my questions because, as everyone knows, health is devolved to Northern Ireland. However, I will illustrate the issues with NHS reorganisation with some stories from the Province. The Minister has a close parliamentary aide from Northern Ireland, so he knows a wee bit about Northern Ireland.
I thank the House of Commons Library for the help it always gives us. Sometimes its information is enormously helpful, and today is one of those days. I have listened with great interest to the contributions so far; it is clear that, no matter the make-up of the constituency—whether Strangford in Northern Ireland, Mitcham and Morden, Warrington South or constituencies in Glasgow, Cardiff or wherever—there are issues. The NHS is struggling UK-wide, and either the pressure goes or its ability to treat will go. We are caught betwixt those two.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to spending £20 billion extra on the NHS, which is a credit to them. My constituency is on the seaside, and lots of people head that way to retire; I suspect things are the same in many constituencies. Our elderly population is growing, and the future demand on healthcare will be enormous. That is why the £20 billion that the Government have set aside is so helpful—because it gives a golden opportunity to plan ahead. The hon. Member for Warrington South was clear about where that should go.
“Lesson 1: Avoid the temptations of a grand plan”.
This refers to the complex and heterogeneous nature of healthcare. We all know that it is complex; that is the very nature of healthcare. There are no one-size-fits-all policies that can address the issues. There has to be more than that.
“Lesson 2: Listen to the public—and don’t pretend you will if you won’t”.
As elected representatives, we know how these things work. When constituents come to us and tell us a problem, we listen intently and respond accordingly. This debate will hopefully be an occasion when we can do just that.
“Lesson 3: Don’t treat the workforce as an afterthought”.
It is very important that the workforce are part of a focused reorganisation plan. With the input of the workforce, there is a way forward.
“Lesson 4: Make sure the funding follows the plan”.
If funding commitments are made, they should be in there.
“Lesson 5: Don’t overrate structural reorganisation”.
In other words, it will not be sufficient to add more to the system that is operating on its own without building that structure up.
“Lesson 6: You need a plan your staff can follow”.
Create a policy and strategy that staff can get behind and support. The best way of doing that is to make sure that staff are involved in the creation of the plan, with staff values reflected in targets. All those things are vastly important, and I know that the Minister, who is a compassionate man and understands the issues well, will be able to respond even to the very generic terms that I put that in.
For Hansard and for the record, I will highlight an issue that I know is important across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: GP out-of-hours services. I emphasise the importance of that service, but we have particular problems with it in my constituency of Strangford. Part of any strategy or plan for NHS reorganisation should look at that.
My local health board is the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust—clearly, not the responsibility of the Minister—which covers my entire constituency. On selected days just last month, the GP out-of-hours service in the main town in my constituency, Newtownards, had to close because it was understaffed, and there are particular reasons for that. People could either follow the advice and go to the nearest South Eastern Trust facility in Downpatrick, some 40 minutes away from Ards—for those who dare to live in Portavogie in the Ards peninsula, not that far from me, it is an hour and 20 minutes—or they could go to the A&E department, which was standing room only. The choice puts massive undue burden on an already drowning service.
I suggest to the Minister—as I have suggested at home; I think it would be helpful—that, whenever GPs commit themselves to operating an out-of-hours service, there may need to be another method of addressing the issues of those who use the service. For instance, why not have a staff nurse to treat minor ailments, taking pressure off the GPs? There are ways of doing things. There does not always have to be a GP there. GPs are predominantly overburdened; they certainly are in my constituency, and I suspect they are everywhere else as well.
I will give the example of my parliamentary aide from just last week, which I believe, unfortunately, is the tip of the iceberg. Her daughter, who has just turned three, is treated in an asthma clinic. She had an extremely high temperature that would not come down to the normal range and which had been going on for nearly two weeks. Her little body fought so hard to control the infection that it was going through that her breathing rate was double what it should have been. The out-of-hours service was rung, and four hours later the call was returned—a long time when the mother and family are getting panicky. The child was lifted out of sleep and brought to a waiting room full of other children who were equally unwell.
Had the service not been able to sound out her lungs, she would have had to travel to the Ulster Hospital, which she ultimately had to do the following week, as her ear infection burst an ear drum. Unfortunately, she is one of many. My aide met doctors who were harassed—not because they were nasty people, but because of their workload—but doing the best they could. When she asked whether there is insufficient funding to pay for out-of-hours care she was told that there is insufficient desire. How do we inspire doctors to be part of the out-of-hours service, which can only function with GPs who want to be part of it?
The new remuneration system came into operation in Northern Ireland in 2003. Although the system was designed to give GP practices much more flexibility on how they deliver services, allowing them to choose how to organise patient care and rewarding them for the quality of that care, the introduction of the new general medical services contract also allowed GPs to opt out of providing out-of-hours services, leaving the system essentially on its knees.
The fact is that the A&E in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald simply cannot cope without the service. The fact is that nursing homes that rely on GPs coming out to patients who are in agony and pain, or to call time of death, need the service, as do parents who need someone to sound out the chest of their asthmatic child without being subjected to a four-hour wait in a room with ill, injured and drunk people in the middle of a cold winter’s night.
The service is vital. I read a report in July this year that referred to Wales as having similar circumstances and similar difficulties with their GP service. I am interested to know whether the shadow Minister or the Minister are aware of similar circumstances across the UK mainland. I suspect any MP in touch with their constituents, as we all are, will be able to replicate the stories that I am telling.
I very much respect GPs and the hard work that they do and their right to a social life. No longer do we expect the village doctor to be on call every day and night, but we need them to be available. There are no longer enforceable contracts, and I believe that, in any new NHS reorganisation or strategy, we must find another way of operating the out-of-hours service that gives the care that our constituents want at the times that they need it, which is usually out-of-hours or whenever they are under pressure.
I spoke very recently to a recently retired GP. He had been doing the night shift four nights a week, but realised that that was too much and pulled out. Perhaps if he had been asked to do only one or two nights, he would have stayed. Too much has been asked of too few people. We need to ensure that funding and people are available.
I know he will be mortified, but I am going to name one local GP, because he is a very popular and well liked GP in my constituency. Dr Doyle has his own practice and can be found a lot more than is right, and than is probably his duty, in the out-of-hours surgery. He makes time to help his patients by writing support letters for personal independence payment and employment and support allowance applications and he genuinely cares. I am not saying that others do not care; I am picking out this man as a representative of what happens. I look at Dr Doyle and wonder how much longer he and others like him can possibly continue. We need to spread the burden through the area.
I would urge the Health and Social Care Committee here to look at what is happening with the out-of-hours service, see the good that it does and perhaps look at a different way in which the out-of-hours provision could work. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, on which I serve as one of the members from my party, is doing inquiries into many things, and one of them is health. People from Northern Ireland with a knowledge of and interest in health are coming here to make presentations to the Committee. And one thing that crops up is the out-of-hours service.
The question is how we adjust to the demands on the health service for the future. I started my comments by saying how much I genuinely welcome the £20 billion that the Government have set aside. We will get some of that through the Barnett consequential, so we are very pleased, but I see the needs in my constituency among the elderly population. I am also very keen that there should be early diagnosis and that preventive steps should be taken in delivering a health service for the future. If we do that, we will be doing the right thing. We must not just react all the time. Let us have a strategy that looks forward and aims to prevent things happening.
I am a type 2 diabetic, and many in the House are, as it turns out. Our Prime Minister is a type 1 diabetic. We all live with our particular ailments. But how much better would it have been if I had known about my condition earlier. I suspect that I was a diabetic for perhaps a year before I was diagnosed as one. I did not know at the time what the issue was. It was only when I went for a check-up with a doctor that I suddenly realised when he told me what was wrong. That makes me wonder whether there are steps that we can take for education, awareness and prevention. That is what we should be doing.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will come to a conclusion in our inquiry on the health service in Northern Ireland, but I will conclude my speech today with this point for the Minister. The problems that I have referred to are specific in some cases to Northern Ireland and to my constituency in particular, but I believe that problems exist UK-wide and therefore that the response must be UK-wide as well.