Voices: The NHS doesn’t just need beds. It needs people

The government is buying some more beds. Two hundred and fifty million quid’s worth of beds, to be exact. It would appear that health secretary Steve Barclay has now concluded that there are, at the moment, rather more people wanting to use the NHS than the NHS is able to cope with, so he’s bought some new beds.

From the people that brought you “40 new hospitals” (and then didn’t), “50,000 new nurses” (20,000 of which were never real and the rest are all on strike anyway), now come “thousands of new beds”.

It’s not clear exactly how many. Only that to get people in to hospital, Barclay reckons he can get people out of hospitals and into beds in care homes. There are an estimated 5,500 people currently in hospital beds struggling with the flu. Large numbers of those – the exact figure no one will say – are in hospital with flu having arrived with something else entirely.

Announcing the new bed plan to the House of Commons, Barclay sat there shaking his head while Labour’s Wes Streeting told him yet another NHS horror story, of which there remain absolutely no shortage whatsoever. This time it concerned an 83-year-old man with Alzheimer’s who was kept waiting in an ambulance outside hospital for 26 hours. By the time they admitted him, his sheets were wet and had not been changed. This was on 23 December, and he’s still in hospital with the flu, which he didn’t have when he arrived.

Flu is a deadly illness for the elderly and the vulnerable. There is a vaccine for it but take-up isn’t as high as it should be. There may be a little alarm going off somewhere, in the back of your mind, about how wise it may or may not be to free up hospital space by evacuating flu patients into care homes. It almost feels like something a bit like this may have happened before and it didn’t go well.

If it feels like deja vu all over again, that’s because it is, and in more ways than one. Beds don’t cure the sick, not on their own. You also need people – trained professionals – to occasionally call in on those in the beds and see how it’s all going.

It doesn’t feel all that long ago that Steve Barclay’s predecessor-but-four, Matt Hancock, was swanking about various hurriedly-redesigned conference centres in seemingly every major town in the country. The Nightingale hospitals – remember them? – where, despite the vast numbers of beds, almost no patients were ever treated.

Is it really almost three years already since I was on the phone to an anonymous registrar at a south London hospital, who was explaining to me how he’d tried to transfer some Covid patients to one of these brand spanking new Nightingale hospitals, because they were all in his hospital (and often on the wrong type of ventilator, that were desperately required for other purposes)?

He was abruptly told that if he wanted to send any actual patients to the Nightingale hospital then he’d need to send a full rota of junior and middle-ranking doctors to look after them as well, because they didn’t have any doctors of their own, they just had the beds.

The Nightingale hospitals were, he said, a “PR exercise”. Is it conceivably possible that £250m worth of extra beds, announced in something of a panic halfway through January, might also be designed to solve the government’s current major problem, which is not merely the massive crisis in the NHS, but the massive crisis in everyone talking about it, and blaming them for it, rather than everyone they’ve chosen to blame? Which in no particular order goes something like: striking nurses, Covid, Vladimir Putin and the flu virus itself?

In a political sense, the government’s main problem regarding the NHS crisis is the growing sense among the people that they are now terrified of needing NHS care because it doesn’t seem to exist anymore. If you can’t reassure people that the health service they rely on is functional, then you’re finished.

It’s not immediately clear whether this brand-new, knee-jerk announcement will have the desired consequences. To turn up at hospital with a broken wrist and get kept waiting for two days is one thing. To catch the flu and get bussed out to a care home while you do so is quite another.