Yes there are heroes in our NHS, but there are problems too –

Last Thursday night, I opened the front door and listened. Nothing. Apart from the spitty hiss of tyre on wet tarmac, not a sound. How is the Clap for Heroes going in your area?

Back in the spring, come 8pm, the air was full of noises. Tambourines, party blowers, an old-fashioned honky car horn, which made people smile. Every week, a new instrument would join the neighbourhood timpani. During that first lockdown, we were out on our doorsteps cheering on the brave NHS workers who were dealing with the onslaught of the virus, many without adequate protection. For a few heady minutes, people could escape isolation and come together as a nation to urge the health service and each other on: “We can do this!”

Ten months later, for Lockdown 3, Clap for Carers has become Clap for Heroes, a tactical expansion to include postal, delivery and other workers who richly deserve our appreciation. Yet it hasn’t taken off like we saw in those early days.

Mission fatigue must partly account for our failure to go out and applaud this time round. Many NHS professionals were also against it starting again, preferring people stick to the guidelines and getting a fair wage over “hollow gestures”. For others, there may have been a dawning realisation that maybe all is not as it should be with “our NHS”. While frontline staff are still doing their utmost and we can’t thank them enough, many families have also seen loved ones denied vital treatment, sidelined in pain or condemned to die at home because nothing seems to matter except Covid.

Desperate for it to be over, most of us are robotically doing as we’re told, gritting our teeth for just one last (this will be the last, won’t it?) heave. We are missing friends and family dreadfully. As a Public Health England (PHE) survey just revealed, prolonged separation is having an enormous effect on our mental state. Stress, like the virus, is now endemic in our society. Parents and children are in continual meltdown as they struggle to work and home school in tandem. One GP tells me that she is worried about increasing suicides in the young and, her patients, she says: “have been denied their basic human right to a family life for 10 months”.

At last, the Government seems to have glanced up from its SAGE graphs and noticed that people are reaching crisis point. On Monday, PHE launched its Better Health – Every Mind Matters campaign to “encourage people to seek help when their mental health is deteriorating”.

Believe me, I would clap with all my weary heart for exhausted men and women in ICUs who are straining every sinew to keep Covid patients alive. But not even at the point of a gun would I clap for NHS management. Having failed to create a system that can cope with a normal respiratory-infection season, let alone a pandemic, it now has the cheek to hide its inadequacy behind the NHS’s magic unaccountability cloak.

Highly-paid apparatchiks talk of “unprecedented pressure” which could have been foretold by a 10-year-old child looking at every winter for the past 20 years.

According to a report by The Kings Fund, the total number of NHS hospital beds in England, including general and acute, mental illness, learning disability, maternity and day-only beds, has more than halved over the past 30 years, from around 299,000 in 1987/88 to 141,000 in 2018/9, while the number of patients treated has increased significantly.  Put simply, in a normal year, the system would be stretched to breaking point. And that’s in a service which cost the British taxpayer a deafening £148 billion in 2019/20.

For this, dear reader, we are expected to be grateful, rather than  apoplectic. So many questions cry out for answers:

1. Why is there such a chronic lack of critical care beds?

2. How could two-thirds of the private sector capacity that was block-purchased by the NHS – at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds – go unused earlier this year when there were horrendous waiting lists?

3. Why build Nightingale hospitals with huge fanfare when there is no one to staff them?

Yet, instead of focusing on the answers, NHS executives  go around waving shrouds. Take Sir Simon Stevens. “A patient is being admitted to hospital with coronavirus every 30 seconds,” warned the chief executive of NHS England on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show.

Upon hearing this, most people would envisage two Covid patients being rushed to hospital every minute. A frightening thought. A closer look at NHS England’s own data, however, reveals that Stevens included in-hospital diagnoses in the statistic he cited. That means patients who have had a positive test result after being admitted for another illness (many of them with no Covid symptoms at all). In a shocking number of cases, those patients actually caught the virus in hospital.

In fact, on Sunday, I’m told by a source within the NHS there had been just under 2,000 in-hospital diagnoses with Covid in the previous 24 hours compared with just over 1,000 new admissions with Covid. You could add those two numbers together to show a patient was being “admitted” to hospital every 30 seconds, but that surely serves only to terrify the public into thinking that a really tough situation was catastrophic. Tellingly, Stevens made no mention of the fact that, during the same 24-hour period, I’m reliably informed there were 1,789 Covid discharges and around 2,500 discharges every single day in the last week. That’s a total of almost 16,500 Covid patients discharged, which is one every 40 seconds. Hugely encouraging, isn’t it? So why on earth doesn’t the chief executive of “our NHS” share those glad tidings?  

Some claim that the fear must be maintained to herd us towards immunisation. But the UK has shown a remarkable willingness to embrace the jab. With four million vaccinated and counting, we can take pride, I reckon, in the fact that there is a high level of trust in political institutions and science here compared with France where just 54 per cent of people say they would have the Covid vaccine.

Yet, we are still faced with those who appear determined to put archaic systems ahead of patient care. Look no further than Mark Drakeford. To universal incredulity, the First Minister of Wales explained this week that his country would be holding back doses of the Pfizer vaccine until February because they didn’t want vaccinators to be left “standing about with nothing to do”. Oh, there’s marvellous for you! Forget that Wales has a large elderly population, a disproportionate number of whom have perished in the pandemic. What matters is not getting people jabbed as fast as is humanly possible; it’s inhumanely insisting that urgent patient needs must not be allowed to interfere with the perfect working of the system.          

When all of this is over, and it really can’t come soon enough, we need a Royal Commission into the NHS. We are urged to applaud “our NHS”, so it’s high time that it served the people who pay for it. I don’t know about you, but I would clap for that.

You can read Allison Pearson’s column every Tuesday from 7pm at Click here to read last week’s column

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