Talk of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in the NHS is wild exaggeration, but it draws attention to a real problem

The Red Cross has divided opinion with its plea for more funding for the health service – and now the Prime Minister must respond

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The Independent Online

The British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War chose the red cross on a white background as its symbol in 1870 because it was easy to see on the battlefield. It was also an inversion of the Swiss flag, a white cross on a red background, as a reference to the original Geneva Convention. 

So when the British Red Cross says there is a “humanitarian crisis” in the NHS, the subliminal impression of death and destruction in a war-torn hell-hole is a powerful one. 

Thus the nation divides. Some of us leap on the high horses of indignation and ride off into the arena to tilt at exaggeration, scare-mongering and shroud-waving. It is outrageous attention-seeking for a charity to imply that our A&E departments are comparable to Syria or South Sudan. 

Others of us are confirmed in our belief that the NHS is going to the dogs and the situation is so bad that we welcome a strident call to arms by an association of the well-intentioned. Good for the Red Cross if it puts the NHS funding crisis on the front pages and forces the Government to do something about it. 

Theresa May's New Year Message

Soon there will be opinion polls telling us in which proportions the nation divides – more for the second point of view, I would guess – but actually both views are valid. 

The Red Cross has long been part of the lobby for more spending on the NHS. Indeed, its news release on Friday says that the charity is repeating its call for more funding at the time of the Autumn Statement in November. It used the “humanitarian crisis” phrase then, too, but we journalists don’t seem to have noticed. 

Nor is this the first time there has been media hoo-hah about the Red Cross stepping in to help rescue an NHS in crisis. At this time of year two years ago there was exactly the same fuss – some people thought the Red Cross was being melodramatic; others welcomed its attempt to shame the Government into action. 

That was when the Red Cross explained, calmly and un-dramatically, that it and other charities had worked for decades with parts of the NHS in providing services to NHS patients, especially by supporting old people so that they don’t need to be admitted or, if they have to be admitted, when they are discharged. The Red Cross is so integrated into the NHS that it receives funding from the Government for some of its work, and after the fuss two years ago the Health Department announced an extra £1.2m funding for a project, including the Red Cross, to support A&E departments. 

Incidentally, the Red Cross is a good advertisement for the benefits of a range of providers of NHS services. Charities, companies and not-for-profit organisations all ought to have a role to play. 

The cynics may be right that the Red Cross’s intrusion into the politics of NHS funding is partly a way of rattling its tin at ministers, but the non-cynics are also right that the NHS is in trouble and anything that can keep the pressure on Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt to deal with it is a good thing. 

Most of the NHS’s indicators are heading in the wrong direction and have been for some years. From the highest levels of patient satisfaction ever recorded when Labour handed the NHS to Conservative care in 2010, the ratings have fallen. Not by much, but as more and more targets are missed, things can only get worse.

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has done a remarkable job in calming the tensions of the junior doctors’ dispute. I use the word “remarkable” as neutrally as I can. For those who haven’t followed it closely, the British Medical Association, the doctors’ trade union, called off its strikes in September. It secured changes to the new contract, which the junior doctors themselves refused to accept, but now the contract is going to be imposed anyway. The effect on NHS morale can hardly be great, but what is remarkable is the way the dispute has slipped out of the headlines. 

Yet none of the underlying problems of the NHS have been solved. The core service has been given just enough money to keep it going and to keep its chief executive, Simon Stevens, in post. But everyone now realises that much of the strain is being passed on to the social care services run by local councils on squeezed budgets. And everyone knows that the ideal of giving mental health care the same importance as physical care is still as far away as ever. 

The Prime Minister is giving one of her rare speeches on Monday, on the subject of “social reform”, and we are told that social care and mental health will be part of it, but we shouldn’t expect too much from this cautious and incremental politician. 

That is why, although the Red Cross is guilty of exaggeration, we should welcome it keeping up the pressure for a better NHS.