UK doctors declare a crisis. Rishi Sunak says people are ‘anxious.’


LONDON — Britain’s treasured National Health Service is in deep crisis, with doctors and nurses reporting hours-long waits for ambulances, patients sprawled on the floors at the ER and examinations taking place in closets.

Medical care in Britain has gotten so bad that Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, estimated that 300 to 500 people were dying each week because of delays in urgent care.

That was a stunning figure — and one that the official spokesperson of 10 Downing Street rejected.

On Wednesday, facing mounting criticism over his government’s failure to heal the health-care debacle, Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said he had heard the people’s lament: that many were looking ahead to the new year “with apprehension,” that they were “anxious” when they saw ambulances waiting in line to get into hospitals, and frustrated and fearful to see surgery backlogs lasting for years.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gave his first speech of 2023 in which he promised fixes to Britain’s NHS. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sunak said he wanted to provide “peace of mind” in his first major speech to the country on his vision for “a future that restores optimism, hope and pride in Britain.”

He promised NHS waiting lists would fall with the hiring of more nurses, doctors and care providers and an additional 7,000 beds added to the 100,000 now. All of which his government will somehow accomplish while not giving in to pay hike demands by striking nurses and ambulance crews.

Early word on the speech: skepticism.

Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said Sunak’s speech suggested he is “detached from the reality” of what is happening inside UK hospitals.

As Sunak acknowledged, Britons have heard a lot of bold promises from 13 years of Conservative Party governments. That includes the bluster of his former boss, Boris Johnson, who was always promising “world-beating” this and that, before being tossed out of office by his own party for, more or less, serial disassembling.

The voters can see with their own eyes the state of the National Health Service (NHS), where waiting times for many elective surgeries have only now been reduced to 18 months — from two years — and getting in to see your local physician can take weeks and weeks.

Phil Banfield, chair of the British Medical Association, recently called the state of the health-care system “unsustainable.”

The causes of the deteriorating situation this winter at the NHS — which promises free access at the point of service for all, paid for by taxpayers — are well known.

The King’s Fund, a think tank that studies the NHS, says it’s a combination: the lingering pressure of the covid pandemic, made worse by a sensational flu season, along with the widespread and ongoing strikes by nurses and ambulance workers, who are demanding more pay and better conditions, plus 10 years of reduced funding by Conservative Party governments.

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The Conservatives’ primary response is to blame the pandemic, a defense that Sunak repeated Wednesday.

He stressed that his party has always adequately supported the NHS. But hospital workers say spending has failed to keep up with demand, especially when faced with an aging population.

With bed occupancies in hospitals topping 94 percent, the NHS is also crippled by its inability to send recovering patients somewhere else — because, alongside the crisis at the NHS, there are also not enough staff to serve as home health aides and at nursing homes. The sector has 165,000 vacancies.

Britain’s public health system is also short 50,000 nurses. Half of all new hires today come from overseas, because the system either can’t train enough people domestically or pays too little to attract new workers from within the United Kingdom. At the same time, Brexit has limited the ability of nurses to come to Britain from the European Union.

Britain has the lowest number of hospital beds per capita in Europe after Sweden.

Boyle, the head of Royal College of Emergency Medicine, earlier this week told Times Radio: “What we’re seeing now in terms of these long waits is being associated with increased mortality, and we think somewhere between 300 and 500 people are dying as a consequence of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care each week. We need to actually get a grip of this.”

Sunak, in his speech laying out his vision, said that Britain not only faced challenges providing health care, but told the country, “we need to change our mind-set.”

A former hedge fund manager, Sunak is — alongside his wife, an heiress to the Indian Infosys fortune generated by her father — listed among Britain’s wealthiest.

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Sunak said “change requires sacrifice and hard work” and that “change is hard, it takes time, but it is possible.”

Taking a page from Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister said Britain must “reverse the creeping acceptance of a narrative of decline. Reject pessimism and fatalism. Refuse limits on our aspirations.”

It wasn’t completely clear what he meant, although Sunak pointed out that “it is staggering, that at a time when businesses are crying out for workers, a quarter of our labor force is inactive” — meaning unemployed and not looking for work. Suggesting that Britons were … lazy?

He pointed out that only half of students older than 15 study any math at all. He wanted more to do so. “Improving education is the closest thing to a silver bullet there is,” Sunak said. “It is the best economic policy, the best social policy, the best moral policy. And that’s why it’s this government’s policy.”

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