The NHS crisis is a national emergency, not a political opportunity

Whatever the causes of this crisis, patients need politicians to occupy higher ground

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Anyone who went near an A&E department over Christmas could have told you how bad things are in the NHS, even before this crisis erupted this week. Official figures showing the worst-ever performance for treating people in casualty, and the growing toll of hospitals declaring major incidents because of a lack of beds, would have come as little surprise to those patients and their families going through it over the past month.

Last week, a relative of mine was admitted to A&E with a serious illness. The scene described to me, as he arrived by ambulance, was more like a field hospital rather than a 21st-century acute ward, with patients on trolleys lining corridors and a sense of continual incoming chaos. One doctor treating my relative was herself recovering from pneumonia yet had come in to help. This hospital, I should point out, is not one of the 15 which have so far declared a major or serious incident, with ambulances queuing outside, but is supposedly one of the better-performing ones.

A nurse told a member of my family how she had spent part of Christmas Day donating blood as her “Christmas present to the nation”. At another hospital, at the other end of the country, I was told of someone who had just undergone an operation helping a fellow patient from the bathroom because there were no staff around to help. Amid the disturbing figures and pictures of tents being erected in hospital car parks, there are these stories of staff and patients helping each other, in the spirit of the Blitz. My relative admitted last week remains seriously ill in hospital, despite receiving excellent treatment. His condition was certainly not made worse by any delays. Yet perhaps it is because he lies in a hospital bed that I cannot help but feel a rising anger when I hear politicians talk about the current crisis in the NHS.

There is nothing new, of course, in ministers and their opponents going head to head over this issue. This battle has been fought for as long as there has been an NHS, and only intensifies in the run-up to an election. Opposition parties – such as Labour with Jennifer’s Ear in 1992 and David Cameron’s airbrushed NHS election poster in 2010 – will always attack an incumbent government over the health service. Yet this week, it is almost as if the political parties have not thought properly about the human misery behind the figures, or seen what it is really like in those wards, corridors and queuing ambulances.

It is a tragedy for the NHS that the general election is only four months away, or, to put it another way, a tragedy that this crisis is so close to polling day. If this current situation had happened a year ago, the atmosphere would not have been so charged, the language less nasty, the urge to blame less strong. But instead, we have friends of Ed Miliband saying he wants to “weaponise” the NHS as an election issue while Jeremy Hunt accuses anyone who tries to raise serious problems as “talking down” the service.

At the weekend, Labour issued a 27-page dossier implying that the Conservatives wanted to abolish the NHS altogether, by claiming that cuts would be on a par with the 1930s – something that is inflammatory and misleading. There were also misleading international comparisons to Mexico. It was a pity because there were enough cold, hard facts in the dossier – that the Government had missed half the targets set out in the NHS constitution – to make it sound.

In return, the Conservatives issued a response claiming that all was fine in the NHS. This press release may have been issued before Tuesday’s figures on A&E targets but ministers must have known at the weekend how bad things were. Fresh from hearing first-hand accounts of how two separate hospitals were certainly not coping, I had to re-read the line: “The NHS is coping with increased pressure”. And then the sentence: “The NHS budget will go up by around £12.7bn over this Parliament” – which sounds like a lot but in fact means a minuscule amount in real terms year on year, when Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, says £8bn is needed every year until 2020 just to keep the service from collapsing.

At PMQs yesterday, when you would have expected the mood to be more restrained and sombre after the terrorist attack in Paris, it took about three minutes before the mud-slinging recommenced. Ed Miliband accused the Prime Minister of being “in denial” about the NHS crisis and that it was due to Mr Cameron’s “failed politics”. Mr Cameron brought up the comment that the Labour leader, or someone in his close circle, had reportedly told the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson before Christmas that Mr Miliband wanted to “weaponise” the NHS as an electoral issue. As a political journalist, I would normally shrug at this language. But try to imagine being a patient or a close relative of someone lying in hospital, and then think of how appalling that sounds.

Because the truth of this is that MPs and commentators like me won’t decide the general election, voters will. Given that there are 200,000 people on any single day being treated in hospital, there will be around a million patients or their close relatives who recoil at the NHS used as a political football. Whatever the causes of this crisis – 111, the axing of district nurses, or the GPs’ contracts – the NHS and its patients need politicians to occupy higher ground. Ministers and opposition politicians need to acknowledge that this crisis is a national emergency and try to reach consensus. But I know the opposite of that will happen before 7 May.

Broader picture at the portrait gallery

The story of Dr Nicholas Cullinan, who has just been appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery 12 years after working there as an assistant – directing visitors to the cloakroom was one of his roles – is an inspirational one because it shows how, in theory, anyone prepared to hack it out on the bottom rung can rise to the top.

Admittedly, he was only a part-time gallery attendant while studying to be an art historian. But the important point is that this 37-year-old has spent valuable time with the public. In fact, his lowly job is surely the greatest of Dr Cullinan’s qualifications for director, because, as shown by Sir Terry Leahy, who started as a Tesco shelf-stacker before becoming its hugely successful chief executive, experiencing the grumbles of customers or visitors first-hand is often the best way to find out how to run something.

My wardrobe malfunction

Every January, I always feel the need for a spring clean of the house, giving away to charity toys that are too young for my daughter and clothes that are too old for me. This week, I felt really smug that I was a decluttering champion after filling several bags with dresses, jigsaws and books. But then, clearing out the back of a cupboard, I found three more carrier bags full of clothes that were supposed to go to the charity shop two years ago. Rifling through them, I discovered a pair of grey Banana Republic trousers and a Jigsaw tartan miniskirt that I had obviously wanted to discard at the  time. They look quite nice, I thought,  and promptly put them back in my wardrobe. January might start out with the best of intentions, but it turns out I am a decluttering dunce.