Bob Bury

Will we see the underfunding of the NHS come back to bite the minister in the hot seat?

Happy New Year to all our readers! (note the clever use of ‘all’ there, giving the impression that you are just one of an enormous army of opinion-formers who turn to these blogs in an attempt to remain abreast of current thinking).

Anyway, this may well be the first article/column/blog that either of you have seen in the past few days which isn’t a list of the writer’s new year resolutions, or of 2015’s best/worst films/books/performances or TV programmes.

Mind you, as I sit down to write this, I’ve no idea what else it’s going to be, which prompts the thought that new year’s resolutions probably now only exist as a plot device to give columnists something to write about as they struggle to reclaim ownership of their drink-sodden minds after the excesses of the festive period. I doubt if anyone actually makes resolutions any more – at least, not if they are over the age of thirty, and have had time to realise that it’s a futile procedure.

I suppose I could talk about the weather. I’m sitting at my desk now, with the Sky coverage of the test match on the computer desktop: in Cape Town, the sun is shining down, and the crowd are reclining on grassy banks with glasses of cold beer in their hands. I glance to my left, through the window, and see that in Yorkshire it’s raining again, dank and miserable. But I suppose I shouldn’t complain – at least we haven’t been flooded. Yet.

And at least I only write for fun: I see from today’s paper that the median income of professional authors in 2013 was £11,000 – almost £6000 below the level that the Joseph Rowntree foundation considers to be necessary for a minimum standard of living. There again, you may be thinking it’s just as well that I don’t rely on writing for my living, given that we’re 300 words into this piece, on a medical website, and no hint so far of anything serious to say on a medical topic.

But what to say? You don’t need me to tell you that we’re going into a new year with Jeremy Hunt still in his job, which must mean that the Tories really do have an agenda which involves the piecemeal privatisation of health care provision, and that we weren’t imagining things when we opposed Lansley’s legislation. The depressing thing is that it’s hard to imagine who else I can vote for at the next election: Labour seem hell-bent on rendering themselves unelectable, and the Lib Dems demonstrated (nowhere better than in their craven capitulation over the HSCA) that while their hearts may be in the right place, they have no stomach for the exercise of power.

As far as life in the NHS is concerned, I’m in no position to comment, having retired five years ago. I do still go in to the hospital though, sometimes as a patient, but also as a volunteer, so I talk to my ex-colleagues, who tell me that nothing much has changed: they go on doing their jobs, under increasing pressure due to the dwindling resources in staff and money available to them. But then, you knew all that, so perhaps my job now should be to report back from the patient front, and there, the news is a bit better.

First of all, my treatment has been excellent. And I know what you’re saying – it would be, wouldn’t it, given that I’m one of their own. But it’s not that – I was a radiologist, so the front line clinical and paramedical staff in nephrology and elsewhere wouldn’t have known me, and in any case, I retired long enough ago to have been forgotten. I’ve been impressed by the cheerful approach of all the staff I come into contact with, despite the fact that they are clearly working under pressure.

I never cease to wonder at their patience when dealing with patients who would have me reaching for my gun.

I also have ample time to listen to the comments of other patients as I wait in the queue for the phlebotomist or in the outpatient clinic. Yes, they moan about stuff, mostly about delays, real or perceived, in the delivery of their care. It’s easy for me to say that the stuff they moan about is stuff that doesn’t matter, but as we all know, what matters to patients isn’t always critical in terms of medical outcome, which is why asking patients what they want doesn’t necessarily result in the delivery of what they need (think NHS Direct).

But I also overhear lots of favourable comments about the service. They may complain about delays in, for example, the arrival of their transport, but seldom if ever about the courtesy and professionalism of the staff when it does arrive.

In other words, the overall positive ratings of the NHS are still, as always, reliant on the professionalism and goodwill of the staff who provide the care; care which they deliver despite, rather than because of, the input of the politicians whose job it should be to maintain quality. That goodwill has been a dwindling asset since long before I retired, regardless of the political colour of the government du jour, and there must come a time when the relative underfunding of the NHS comes back to bite the minister in the hot seat when the music stops.

At which point, of course, said minister (who is likely to be a Tory for the foreseeable future, thanks to the elevation of the Other Jeremy) will blame the staff for their alleged failings and unwillingness to go the extra mile – rather as Hunt currently identifies the fictional unwillingness of doctors to work at the weekend for the equally fictional increase in mortality rates.

And there we are – pushing a thousand words, some of which were vaguely on-topic. Not a bad start to the new year. The cricketers did OK as well. By the time you read this, you’ll probably know how the match turned out; I suspect we’ll still be waiting for close of play on the NHS. At least, I hope we will.

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