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Opinion

As the NHS turns 75, let’s celebrate it – and fight for it  

We must take this opportunity to hold politicians to account and reimagine what we want from the NHS says Dr Julia Patterson

Sign saying Thank You NHS

Image: Shutterstock

Dr Julia Grace Patterson in a black dress beside a window
Dr Julia Patterson

The NHS’s 75th anniversary is on 5 July. It’s an extraordinary milestone for an extraordinary institution, which has improved the lives of millions of people since it first began. It’s right that we celebrate the day, because the NHS is a representation of so many good things. Health. Safety. Progress. Care, which is extended across the country and to every single person in their hour of need.

Yet the service is currently struggling enormously, under the weight of problems which have been building for years because of the decisions and actions of politicians. So alongside our celebrations it is imperative that we hold politicians to account. If they don’t change their behaviour, reverse their actions and rebuild our public healthcare system then it is unlikely to survive for another 75 years. 

The problems in the NHS aren’t new. Since 2010 the government has squeezed the salaries of the workforce, failed to invest in important things, and the waiting lists started to grow long before the Covid-19 pandemic. We entered into that with over four million people already on waiting lists, and the pandemic of course made everything worse. In order to care for those people who were severely unwell with Covid-19, many appointments and operations had to be delayed or cancelled, and that has had a huge impact.  

But coming out of the pandemic, politicians had an opportunity. They were warned by many healthcare experts and organisations that drastic action was needed, because the problems were spiralling, the workforce were under enormous pressure and patients were being failed. The government failed to take the action necessary. Instead, they pushed a bill through Parliament called the Health and Care Act 2022, a piece of legislation which has broken the NHS in England into 42 parts. Privatisation has been infiltrating the service for years and this Act has worsened things, breaking apart the essential architecture of our service further.  

Instead of supporting the NHS workforce, listening to concerns and finding a way forward, the government has been locked in pay disputes for many months now. This is terrible for staff, whose real-terms pay cuts have been significant (so much so that many NHS Trusts now run their own food banks), but it is also terrible for patients.

The government should be doing everything they can to support the workforce and get the NHS waiting lists down. But the waiting lists are growing, despite Rishi Sunak’s promise in January that they were one of his top five priorities as prime minister. They are growing to terrifying lengths – the longest in the entire NHS’s history, with an estimated 7.4 million patients currently awaiting treatment in England alone.

Sometimes when we see the waiting lists reported in the media we’re given the sense that patients just need to wait their turn and accept that it’ll take a little longer. But it’s not that simple. Many people are now waiting significant periods of time to access the treatment they need (the number of patients who are waiting for more than a year for their NHS treatment is 186 times higher than it was before the pandemic).

When a patient is waiting for a long time, their symptoms may worsen. Their medication needs may increase, and some medications may have side effects or lead to dependency issues. Patients may be in pain, or develop other problems associated with their illness, like mental health problems or even breakdowns in personal relationships. Enduring and untreated healthcare problems can lead to people losing their jobs, and even reduce their quality of life.  

Health is a key determinant in the happiness of a nation, the economic productivity of a nation and the overall progress of a nation. The NHS project therefore goes far beyond individuals’ health issues. It goes beyond the patients on waiting lists and affects us all, and this is why it is so important. This is why we must fight for it and stand up at this important milestone to demand better from our politicians.  

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The problems in the NHS are not the fault of staff, and they are certainly not the fault of the public. They were predictable, and predicted, and they have been caused by politicians. We need to call for many things, together. We need private outsourcing to be eliminated. We need the PFI debt, which costs us billions every year, to be paid off. We need the staff to be properly supported in pay and in their general workplace conditions. And once these things are done we need to start imagining an NHS fit for the next 75 years. An NHS where the leadership mirrors the changing demographics of our population, an NHS with the facilities our communities truly need, an NHS where sustainability is at the centre of decision making.

We are at an important milestone, a crossroads, and we must take this opportunity to hold politicians to account and reimagine what we want from the NHS; bold, transformative, necessary ideas which will carry this extraordinary project forward for another 75 years.  

Julia Grace Patterson is Chief Executive of EveryDoctor

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