Healthcare unions have disputed the pertinence of Theresa May’s claim that NHS funding is at record levels, saying she is in “denial” over overwhelming demand and bed shortages.
The Prime Minister rejected a warning from British Red Cross that hospitals are facing a “humanitarian crisis” after the organisation stepped in to support the overstretched health service.
Ms May acknowledged the NHS was under pressure but told Sky News the Government was addressing the issue of an ageing population, adding that health funding was at record levels.
“We asked the NHS a while back to set out what it needed over the next five years in terms of its plan for the future and the funding that it would need. They did that, we gave them that funding, in fact we gave them more funding than they required,” she said.
“Funding is now at record levels for the NHS, more money has been going in.”
But Mark Porter, council chair of the British Medical Association, said spiralling patient numbers and the lack of additional funding provided for health and social care meant the service was still struggling in real terms.
Rehana Azam, head of public services at GMB, the largest union in the ambulance services, told The Independent Ms May’s comments carried a “level of denial”.
And Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, said Ms May was “in danger of being ‘economical with the actualité’ on the issues of NHS funding”.
“Despite Theresa May’s claims that funding for the NHS is at record levels, the Red Cross intervention comes at a time when hospital beds have hit a record low, demand on the system is at a record high and general practice is struggling to cope with rising patient numbers,” Dr Porter told The Independent.
“Given that the NHS was facing the worst winter on record, the unacceptable absence of additional funding for health and social care in the Autumn Statement has only further exacerbated the crisis.”
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have called on Ms May and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to make an emergency statement on the issue in Parliament tomorrow.
Figures show A&E departments shut their doors to patients more than 140 times in December, while a third of NHS trusts in England have issued alerts as they are struggling to cope with demand, according to the Nuffield Trust.
The British Red Cross, which is helping at hospitals in the East Midlands, said the government should take immediate action to “stabilise” the health service after it emerged two patients died on trolleys in the A&E department of Worcestershire Royal hospital last week.
Dr Porter said Theresa May could not “continue to bury her head in the sand” as the situation worsened.
“We have seen no signs from the Prime Minister since taking office that she understands the gravity of the situation the NHS is facing,” said Mr Porter.
“The proportion of national income invested in healthcare in this country is lower than other leading nations and the government’s refusal to fill the black hole in NHS finances, as evidenced with lack of additional funding in the Autumn Statement, is betraying a population growing more anxious about an uncertain future.”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was accused of “hiding” from the public eye during what the Society for Acute Medicine has warned could be the worst January the NHS has ever faced.
Mr Hunt has not yet issued a comment on the unfolding health service crisis.
“Where’s Jeremy Hunt in all of this?” said Ms Azam. “It’s the staff who are being let down, and it’s the public and the patients who are being let down.”
“There’s a level of denial here. It’s almost like Ms May doesn’t want to acknowledge the real problem, which is that a third of hospitals are on black alert because they’re overstretched, and the resources haven’t been put in over time.”
Ms Azam claimed NHS funding hadn’t kept in pace with inflation or demand.
“It’s brilliant that people live longer, but people have complex needs,” she said. “[The Leave campaign] lied about giving £350m a week to the NHS when the EU referendum was going on. Now, post-Brexit, you need to build a good country on proper public services.”
Ms May said that an ageing population “brings pressures, particularly in the interface between the health service and social care”.
“We have taken some immediate steps in relation to that issue, but we are also looking to ensure best practice in the NHS and looking for a long-term solution to what has been a problem that has been ducked by government over the years,” she told Sky’s Sophy Ridge.
Mr McCluskey told The Independent: “The PM is in danger of being ‘economic with the actualité’ on the issues of NHS funding. Health economists have consistently said that by forcing the NHS to make £20 billion in savings by 2020, the government is driving this service into crisis.
“The government knows all too well that the funding for the service falls far short of what is needed to meet the challenges presented by the monstrous debts carried by hospital trusts, from an ageing population and from the pitiful absence of a reliable, decent social care service, which is urgently needed to take the pressure off the frontline NHS.”
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