Leading Article: Somehow, we must find the money to shore up our ailing health service

THERE ARE times when the news strikes the ordinary person as nearly incredible. In today's newspaper, we report that over the Christmas holidays there was just one intensive-care bed available for emergency occupancy in the whole of London. In Liverpool and the North-west there have been just two beds available at any time since the beginning of November. Is that planning? Is that adequate hospital provision for our vast urban conglomerations? One Paddington rail disaster, one multi-car pile-up could so easily overwhelm this absurdly small capacity.

Back-up plans in the NHS involve airlifting critically ill patients hundreds of miles, if the handful of empty high-dependency beds proves insufficient over the Millennium weekend. A moment's reflection reveals that to be but a costly stopgap that would drain more resources from local hospital authorities (which must send a doctor and a nurse to accompany patients to distant hospitals) and force worried relatives to find accommodation in unfamiliar cities to be able to visit and comfort their loved ones.

It is true that such shortages seem to come round every winter, as cold weather brings about illnesses in the elderly and many people, including nurses and doctors themselves, succumb to flu. But to say it happens every winter is no excuse; such shortages should not be occurring in any winter. While it is understandable that an unexpected crisis may tax NHS facilities to their limits, there is no good reason for fully predictable demands not being met.

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, is not unaware of the shortcomings of the service for which he is responsible. For some months, he has been making policy speeches arguing the case for more funds for the health service. Labour Party focus groups, which reveal that the shortcomings of the NHS are the voters' biggest concern, have added power to the case he must make to the Chancellor to secure those funds.

The Conservative Party takes the view that the shortages will never be made up by money from the Treasury, as the taxpayer is already paying a great deal and the sums necessary are very large indeed. Its solution is to bring more funds into health care from the private sector, through private insurance schemes.

The end result of that route, argues Mr Milburn, would be to reduce the NHS to a core service treating only the poor and needy. To maintain the basic structure of the NHS as a single system meeting the needs of all citizens, Mr Milburn favours such innovations as ear-marked taxes, such as that on cigarettes included in the last Budget.

In the short term, Gordon Brown will probably unlock his famously well- stocked war chest to find some money to splash out on pre-election largess for the NHS. In the longer term, a permanent increase in funding will have to be found somewhere else. On that issue the two leading political parties have very different instincts, even if they start from the same premise - that more money must be found.

The clash of debate that should ensue must yield policies to end the shame of a hospital service unprepared to deal with major emergencies.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices