(Photo: sturti via Getty Images)
NHS struggles have been well-documented over the past few years – but the impact of the institution’s collapse goes far beyond our own health.
A recent report from MPs found that England is now short of 12,000 hospital doctors and more than 50,000 nurses and midwives, dubbing it the worst workforce crisis the NHS has ever faced.
Around 3,000 dentists are thought to have moved away from the NHS completely since the first lockdown in March 2020 as well.
Now, 91% of NHS practices in England are not accepting new adult patients, with 79% not accepting new child patients either, according to a BBC investigation.
The findings suggest this is why it’s taking so long for the health service to tackle the Covid backlog and get back to pre-pandemic functions.
This issue affects other areas of UK society too. Outside of the NHS, services across the country do not appear to be operating as smoothly as they did in 2019, as other companies try to cope with ongoing staff shortages.
Why is this still a problem, more than a year on from the lifting of all social distancing restrictions?
Brexit has been blamed, along with the ongoing impacts of contracting Covid for individuals – but new data suggests that it is actually the NHS’s problems which are having a particularly far-reaching impact on the whole nation.
Is our workforce really depleted?
As ONS data shows, the UK employment rate is still below pre-pandemic levels to 75.6%, with total actual weekly hours still significantly lower than before the first lockdown.
The total of actual hours worked now stands at 1.04 billion between February and April – this is still 7.6 million below the hours recorded at pre-Covid levels.
The number of job vacancies between March and May this year also rose to a new record of 1.3million.
I have to ask...
Where did everyone go?
Restaurant staff. Sales help. Service techs?
I can't count the number of places between Maine and Florida that are "short staffed" and unable to operate in a normal capacity.
Someone clue me in on this!
— Dutch Simmons (@thedutchsimmons) July 5, 2022
Why is this to do with the NHS?
According to findings from Financial Times’ journalist John Burn-Murdoch, much of the UK’s diminished labour stems from our flailing health service.
More 15 to 64-year-olds are neither employed nor seeking work now than compared to late 2019, Burn-Murdoch’s data shows. This number “has risen in almost every quarter since the end of 2019”.
He points out the the 332,000 people who have been waiting for more than a year for hospital treatment in the UK is pretty close to the 309,000 missing from the labour four due to long-term sickness.
Burn-Murdoch also claims that chronic illness is the main problem – and suggests that this is not the knock-on effect of the pandemic (and people developing long Covid), but because waiting times have been prolonged. This means illnesses are not being treated in a timely manner, and becoming more severe, stopping people from returning to work as soon as they could.
He suggests that Covid, of course, has applied more pressure through staff absences, and the ongoing backlog from the lockdowns – but the health service was struggling long before then.
This is an astonishingly important story from @jburnmurdoch. Our suddenly-diminished labour force is an immediate, dangerous drag on UK prosperity. It's a hypothesis, but if NHS decay is the reason, this is THE issue of the decade https://t.co/zghb5JwYDopic.twitter.com/RJ36nmqbXH
— Giles Wilkes (@Gilesyb) July 22, 2022
Burn-Murdoch compared it to other countries and pointed out that the NHS seems significantly less robust than its counterparts in other countries who had to deal with the same pandemic.
Their workforces appear to have bounced back significantly more than the UK – and that could be down to a more functional health system.
HuffPost UK has contacted the DHSC and NHS England for a statement in response to the findings and will update this article if we receive a response.
So, what is wrong with the NHS?
The primary problems with the NHS seem to be waiting times, from being seen to by an ambulance to getting a GP appointment, or a specialist referral.
Shawn Carlwood, chairman of the British Dental Association’s general dental practice committee, said: “NHS dentistry is at a tipping point, with millions unable to get the care they need and more dentists leaving with every day that passes.
“We’re seeing the results of years of chronic neglect, set into overdrive by the pressures of the pandemic.”
An article from the editors-in-chief of British Medical Journal (BMJ) also claimed that Covid is still having a huge impact on the healthcare system.
They added: “What the hospital admissions figures hide is a rising tide of people with long covid, now at two million and likely to be a major burden on the health service and the nation’s productivity, for a generation. ”
Independent charity, The Health Foundation, noted that while the NHS may be struggling due to higher demand for services, emergency admissions and elective care remain lower than those seen in 2019.
An alternative explanation is a shortage of supplies – less is being spent on each patient, fewer staff and beds. However, the charity points out that there are now 8.1% more staff in October 2021 than there were in 2019. When staff absences are accounted for, staffing is still 6.9% higher.
Yet, the health and social care committee, made up of MPs, blames staff shortages for the delays to treatment.
“Persistent understaffing in the NHS poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety, a situation compounded by the absence of a long-term plan by the government to tackle it,” committee chair and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said.
It’s worth noting that even before the pandemic, then NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens was calling for “more acute beds” – and blaming underfunding from the government for the health services’ struggles to meet demand.
As The Health Foundation suggests, the health care’s problems may lie in the NHS performance spiral – so Covid has stretched an already “lean” service.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.