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Why is Britain's health system in crisis?

STORY: Patients laid up in crowded hospital corridors.

Ambulances queuing for hours on end.

Overworked and striking staff.

Britain’s National Health Service is on its knees.

Buckling under the weight of an ageing population, a lack of investment and the continuing effects of the

COVID-19 pandemic.

As of January 2023, there were 7.2 million people awaiting treatment in England.

That's according to the NHS.

62-year-old Garry Cogan is one of them.

Two years on from a heart attack, he’s still waiting for a triple bypass operation.

‘’I was told at the time six months to do a bypass operation. The first part of the delay was through COVID, and that was the main excuse given all the time. That made absolutely perfect sense.’’

Garry's surgery has been pushed back repeatedly.

The most recent date he was given was cancelled with just four days notice - due to a lack of staff and beds.

“A few times I have just said at one stage, I think what I'm going to do is I'm going to go for a run now for five miles until I actually keel over. I said, that would get me in here. And the woman talking to me said, Oh, don't don't be doing anything like that. She said, You'll be right, just rest yourself up. And I said. I said, I'm not a resting a person. I said, I'm 62 years of age I said, I'm not 87. And she just said, yes, she said, You'll be all right. I said, Yeah, When?”

The British Heart Foundation estimates around 8,000 people have been waiting more than a year for heart treatment.

In 2022 England and Wales recorded 45,000 deaths above the 2015-2019 average,

making it the deadliest year by this metric since 1951, outside of the COVID pandemic.

Some 2.5 million people are out of work due to long term sickness.

And the Bank of England has cited general ill-health as one reason for a reduction in the size of the country's workforce.

So why are patients being let down by the NHS – the institution that was once a source of huge national pride?

Chief analyst at English health charity The King’s Fund, Siva Anandaciva, says there’s a unique set of difficulties at play.

“I can honestly say I've never seen this particular combination of factors where you've got the pressures from COVID. You've got the usual pressures from winter vomiting bugs and things that you'd get at this time of year. You've got staff absences because staff are off ill and you've got industrial action.”

One of the most pressing issues is the number of people in hospital who are actually well enough to leave,

but don’t have the support to live elsewhere.

In early January 2023, a record 14,000 beds were taken up by patients who were medically fit for discharge.

Such is the pressure that health workers are quitting in droves

and nurses went on strike this year for the first time in their union's 106-year history.

[Victoria Banerjee, Senior nurse]

"Everything's continued to increase except for our pay, our working conditions have not changed, in fact, they've got worse and it's just becoming more and more of a struggle, more nurses are using food banks that work in extra shifts they're doing extra agency work just to cover their basic bills."

[David Hendy, Emergency nurse]

"This job is slowly killing nurses and that is why nurses are leaving. // It's not all about pay, it's also about the quality and the safety of patient care that we deliver. // I saw more deaths in one year than in 14 years as a nurse"

In January 2023, Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak outlined a two-year recovery plan to help restore emergency care and frontline services.

It includes 800 new ambulances and 5,000 new beds backed by a $1.2 billion fund.

‘’What's terrifying right now is people not knowing whether when they call nine, nine, nine, they will get the treatment that they need.’’

The government says it’s pumping record investment into the health service - accounting for 40% of day-to-day

government spending.

But analysts say it’s not enough to transform the NHS.

Or prepare it for a future with an ageing population.

Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Ben Zaranko.

‘’So the best thing to put the health service’s funding on a more sustainable trajectory would be a sustained increase in economic growth and the tax revenues that would come along with it. In the absence of that, we’re going to have to have difficult conversations about tax rises.”

For now, the NHS is limping on.

[Siva Anandaciva, Chief analyst, The King’s Fund]

‘’But honestly, I think that if you look at the NHS, you're talking about an 8 to 10 year path before targets - national targets for how long you wait and A&E or for your hip operation - so eight or ten years until those are going to be reliably met.”

Over in Colchester, Garry remains worried he could suffer another heart attack while he waits for treatment,

He has been forced to cut his working hours down to three days a week to protect his heart.

“It feels like all the institutions you've paid into, when it comes down to you needing them they let you down for their own reasons.’’