It still doesn’t feel all that long ago that this country was stopped in its tracks by the horrific news reports from inside Covid-ravaged Italian hospitals. What was happening there was about to happen here, and there was nothing we could do about it.
And now we are gripped by a similar sense of helplessness by what’s happening in our own hospitals. There doesn’t seem to be a single one not in the midst of an unimaginable crisis. All over the Christmas period, news reporters have simply hung around inside and outside of hospitals typing out the horrors they are witnessing.
Ambulances were queueing, just waiting until it becomes possible to drop off their patients (and for every ambulance waiting around outside a hospital, somebody else is inevitably waiting for an ambulance, sometimes for days). Children were screaming in pain for hours and hours on end. There are reports – there are so many reports – of people suffering cardiac arrest while waiting to be seen.
It hardly needs to be stated that this is not a sustainable situation. In this country, we have a morbid fascination with comparing our free-at-the-point-of-delivery health service to the seemingly industrialised con-job that goes on in the United States, but – in the most unlikely of fashions – they are becoming the same.
When I worked in New York in 2005, the University of Columbia – an Ivy League school that charges terrifying fees – had set up its own, in effect private ambulance service, so that college students wouldn’t have to dial 911 in an emergency and potentially spend the rest of their lives paying it off.
One morning I was woken by the unusual sound of what turned out to be my flatmate having an epileptic fit for the first time in his life. I did call an ambulance. The next morning my coworkers told me I was mad to have done it. Mercifully, he, a fellow Brit, was fully covered by his travel insurance.
I say all this now because for the first time in my lifetime, it suddenly feels like we are living in the same situation. During the early December cold snap, I know of families that didn’t let their young children go sledding, for no other reason than fear that they might get injured and there be no one to treat them. On Christmas Day, when my daughter was really quite ill, I spent 55 minutes on hold to 111 before – lucky me, I know – having to give up and bother an old friend who was briefly a paediatrician.
The E in A&E stands for emergency, and yet there appears to be no prospect of emergency care. This is a dramatic shift in our way of life. British people like to imagine the NHS to be the envy of the world, even though no comparable country has ever really tried to copy it, and they could. But for all its many faults, including its Kafkaesque bureaucracy, it has still always been the case that British people do not live their lives in fear of needing medical assistance, as is the case with so many other people all over the world. That remains one of the most outstanding aspects of British life, but it is disappearing fast.
People seem to know, at the moment, that the ambulance isn’t going to come, that you might be better off tending to your children’s illnesses via Dr Google or, if you’re lucky, knowledgeable friends.
It is remarkable that it should have been allowed to come to this point. For the last few days, an old 2016 campaign video, produced by Vote Leave, has been doing the rounds. It shows, in split screen, two fictional British NHS hospitals, one imagines life outside the EU, the other inside. Of course, the Remain hospital is overrun. The Brexit hospital is calm, with no queues, smiling elderly women are seen to in good time and go back to their happy homes and lives.
It is execrable garbage, of course it is, but the fact that this sort of execrable garbage compelled the country to make the worst decision any major democracy has ever made, should be enough to make every politician work out that trashing the NHS is the surest way to electoral ruin.
Boris Johnson also won by talking inane drivel about the number of new hospitals he was going to build. Rishi Sunak has absolutely no hope of winning if he is unable to prevent the effective collapse of an emergency service the country cannot live without.
It’s not at all clear how he’s going to do it. Thus far, all his spokesperson has managed to say is that the NHS is struggling because the pandemic was very bad. There are other countries where the pandemic also happened, with other health services that have not collapsed in this way.
He was also asked whether he would be happy for his own family to use the NHS. His spokesperson said it was not “in the public interest” to answer that question. In a way he’s right – the public aren’t interested in the answer, they already know it.
The problem Sunak faces in this area is the same as in so many others. He is not capable of giving an honest answer, a reality he will not be able to change.