It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Eleanor Smith for securing the debate. Like everyone who knows the NHS workforce, I want to pay tribute to all the people I served, including in acute services, when I was a Unison official in public sector health. Some of the stories we heard today from colleagues who used to work as nurses or as other healthcare staff took me back to those times. I have talked to many a worker, particularly in mental health, and often they are overstretched. The work is arduous and they cannot go off shift, for the safety of the patients. More importantly, at times the environment is dangerous for staff, and I know many people, particularly in acute mental health, who have been subjected to violence in the workplace purely as a consequence of understaffing and lack of resources, yet they bravely battle on to look after the patients in their care.
There is a word that one would never expect to be associated with NHS services in a commonplace way, yet it is frequently associated with the demise or semi-demise, or shutdown or partial shutdown, of NHS units. That word is “unsafe”. It has been used time and again, especially by acute trusts, to justify the stoppage of particular patient-facing functions, including accident and emergency departments. In 2016 it was reported that in 60 towns, including Hartlepool, A&E units had closed, disappeared or been downgraded. A year later, in 2017, one in six was reported to be at risk, and a further 33 units, in 23 areas in the UK, were affected.
Even today, in the Tory heartlands of Richmond and Northallerton in north Yorkshire, the same is happening at the Friarage Hospital. It is not just A&E provision that is affected but the birthing unit at University Hospital of Hartlepool, and breast screening at nearby James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough. They have been mothballed or put into slow decline, with one common denominator: the services were deemed unsafe due to a lack of consultants.
The recruitment and retention of consultants is vital, of course, but so too is the recruitment and retention of nurses and other staff. I mentioned the birthing unit in Hartlepool because last year the maternity centre, at which there were once hundreds of births, reached an all-time low—just three babies were delivered at the unit, with a further five home births in the town. That so alarmed the local authority that maternity provision in the town came under specific scrutiny, with a view to promoting and boosting the use of the birthing unit and improving maternity services in the locality. In fact, the chair of the council’s audit and scrutiny committee—Conservative Councillor Brenda Loynes—is on record as saying that it was
“important to encourage more people to use the Hartlepool unit to keep the service in the town.”
Yet the will of the people, and the pride that comes from having the right to be born and registered in their own town, is continually being thwarted. Only this week a constituent told me that his partner, who was four days over her due date, had recently opted to have her baby at the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton because there was not a consultant on hand at Hartlepool, even though they are part of the same NHS foundation trust. At her midwife appointment, his partner stated that it was a shame that there was not a consultant on hand in Hartlepool, as her preferred choice was to give birth there. The reply was, “Nobody can have their babies at the birthing centre, as they haven’t got the staff to cover it—not just consultants but midwifery staff.” To the people of my town, who thought that they had seen the back of cuts to hospital services, that will be a slap in the face.
There are 40,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England alone, according to the Royal College of Nursing and the other unions—GMB, Unite and Unison. We stand on the brink of a crisis in our NHS. As my brother Andrew has experienced several times, surgery and appointments are cancelled, and wards and units are closed, more often than not because of staff shortages.
Let me be clear: that is not the fault of the hard-working NHS staff, who cannot and do not drop everything at the end of their shift, in the face of short staffing and in the interests of patient safety. It is not the fault of the midwives in Hartlepool, who want to provide a service out of the local hospital. It is the fault of the Government, who have failed to get a grip of the issue and ensure that there are enough health and care staff with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time to care for patients. Their strategy for the NHS has to include taking responsibility for ensuring adequate workforce planning and funding. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care must have a clear and explicit responsibly for the growth and development of the healthcare workforce across England. Shame on the Government for not doing so and for running the NHS further into the ground.