This election should have been fought on the NHS – and that’s where the Tories are failing

There is room for improvement in any organisation, but from my recent experience of the health service, it really is all about the money

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 07 June 2017 15:43 BST
Nurses and doctors are struggling under the pressure placed on the NHS
Nurses and doctors are struggling under the pressure placed on the NHS (Rex)

It wasn’t the “Brexit election” Theresa May promised. We are none the wiser about her strategy.

Nick Clegg was right to say that the Conservatives and Labour have conspired to avoid a proper debate on Brexit. In effect, May is asking voters to confirm their own decision in last year’s referendum, without filling in much detail of what Brexit really will mean. Her aim is to hoover up the Ukip vote, and she probably will.

Jeremy Corbyn did not want to highlight Brexit because it divides his party. Like May, he did the right thing for his party rather than the country. We have little idea how Labour would handle the Brexit negotiations either. The Liberal Democrats have been squeezed out – despite fighting on the issue the election was supposed to be about.

It has been the weirdest of the nine elections I have covered. The economy has barely featured, even though it’s only two years since the Tories banged on about their “long-term economic plan” and the deficit that is still with us. Unusually, the voice of an anxious business community has not been heard.

On its final lap, it has turned into an election on national security – inevitable after the terrible events in Manchester and London. A battle for power between two parties has rightly been eclipsed by human tragedies and acts of heroism.

But these events have left less media space for important issues like education and social care as the campaign closes.

Question Time: I have been waiting since 2015 for NHS mental health counselling

Personally, I regret that the NHS has not been more prominent. In a way, the election has reminded us about the best of the NHS, with the brilliant response of its staff to the terrorist attacks. It is great in a crisis and we should be proud of it.

But I have also witnessed recently the worst of the NHS, the gruelling day-to-day struggle with limited resources.

My wheelchair-bound, 94-year-old mother-in-law was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. We waited 18 hours in a completely swamped accident and emergency department. I sat there thinking about Jeremy Hunt’s promise that the four-hour waiting target would be hit next year. I cannot believe it could be met.

There had not been a terrorist atrocity; this was a normal Sunday. No beds free anywhere in London. At one point, she was going to be moved to Chelmsford, 35 miles away. In the end she spent three nights in a temporary observation unit, also overstretched.

My mother-in-law contracted sepsis. The doctor said she had dementia. We knew that was wrong; it was delirium.

Finally she was found a permanent bed. She was very, very ill. The message from the medical staff was that we should get ready to let her go, as she was suffering.

They were so overrun that my wife did round-the-clock caring – making sure her mum had a drink, changing her nappy and alerting the nurse when the drip wasn’t working.

Welcome to our DIY NHS.

I don’t criticise the staff. They mostly worked flat out, and probably had even more urgent priorities. It was obvious that the hospital needed more of them; it was creaking under pressure.

There is a happy postscript. The drugs worked, and after two weeks my mother-in-law returned to her nursing home. She loves the coast, and we have just taken her on the train to Clacton and to Leigh-on-Sea. Remarkably, she is her old self again. We thought we’d never see it.

“It’s not about money, it’s about reform,” is what May says when the issue of NHS resources comes up. Her approach was based on cutting 20,000 police officers and seeing crime fall by a third. She needs a new mantra: the terrorist attacks clearly call into question the wisdom of the police cuts.

Of course there is room for improvement in any organisation, but from my recent experience of the NHS, it is about money. So I’ve been looking closely at what the parties have been saying.

The Lib Dems would provide an extra £6bn for health and social care. They are honest enough to admit that it would require an extra 1 per cent on all income tax rates and a dedicated health tax.

Labour would spend an extra £6bn a year on health, £30bn more over five years. The Conservatives would spend £8bn more in real terms by 2022-23.

Because the pledges are worded differently, and cover different timescales, comparisons are not easy to make. The King’s Fund think tank calculates that Labour’s plans are the most generous initially, with the Lib Dems catching up in later years.

The NHS will need every penny, and more. The King’s Fund, Health Foundation and Nuffield Trust found that no party would cover half the £30bn deficit looming in five years.

Muddling through – which seems to be the Tory plan – will not be enough.

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