Penny Pepper reflects on how the Government dodges responsibility for the lack of resources available for our health service

I’m an NHS baby. My earliest memories would play out like an episode of Call the Midwife, perhaps less sweet. By the time I was five, the NHS hospital was part of my life.

It was very different back in the 60s and 70s. Even the food was different – the big kitchens with cheeky foreign porters lined up to push the massive trolleys. In some ways, it was like boarding school, with long days of education and physiotherapy. 

I felt I belonged in a community. Some of the nursing staff were most likely of the Windrush generation. It was a time of discovery, to know and love people from so far away while in childhood. Everyone knew my name and it was the medical staff that dragged most of us through adolescence. They had an astonishing dedication to our treatment. 

Service was never perfect but we were fed well, attended to and received what we needed. Provisions offered by GPs and smaller local hospitals were connected to communities and I felt genuinely cared for by my own doctor, who would go out of his way to bend the rules and talk to people to ensure I received the best treatment I could. He would visit if I had an urgent need. Calling an ambulance was unthinkable and unnecessary for most of the time.

A few weeks ago, an injured hip began my painful modern drag through the current NHS. The cracks are clear to see. 

I needed an x-ray to eliminate a break or dislocation. Once, I could have rung my GP and received advice with an x-ray ordered immediately. A GP appointment now can’t be made for three weeks and, even then, it’s a phone consultation. As an obedient citizen, I tried 111 – although I knew the outcome before I dialled.

The only sobering option was to go to A&E, which I did with a close friend and an experienced personal assistant. We arrived into complete crowded chaos. A friendly and harassed nurse attempted to organise the waiting area by injury and I was corralled into limbs. This was at 3.30pm. 

Barriers, Ignorance… And More BarriersThe Every Day Experiencesof Disabled People

Penny Pepper

I didn’t want to be there, mostly because it felt unnecessary – but there was no other option. Around 7pm, I saw the triage nurse as the waiting area continued to heave and ambulances continued to queue. A woman had a seizure in the waiting room. Kids were vomiting. An old man was coughing. There was no aggression, more a weary resignation and almost stoic companionship. The nurse gave me oral morphine which helped more than just my hip. The wait went on. And on. 

My tired friend left at 11.30pm. I finally saw a very elderly doctor at 12.20am who, despite a significant language barrier, announced that I needed an x-ray. A different nurse, apologising for my very long wait, said staff shortages were acute. By 1am, I was put on a trolley for my x-ray. I’d only had water to drink and no food since 1pm. A nursing assistant attempted to find me some sandwiches but they never arrived as no one was available to answer the call to the kitchens…

My experience with this interminable wait reflects a recent report in the Guardian, highlighting how there are “greater numbers of people calling an ambulance because they cannot get through to a more appropriate service such as their GP”. 

As reported, the Government naturally blames the pandemic. Yet, we now live in a Coronavirus-present world, and the fault lies firmly with the Government’s policies and outright attacks on health services and social care in general. We also know that the Government can rely on the rampant right-wing media to blame anyone but Boris Johnson’s administration. 

As noted in a powerful and scathing BMJ piece, “headlines have included the Telegraph’s ‘GPs Still Ignoring Orders to Allow Patients Face-to-Face Appointments” and the Spectator’s ‘Why Are Doctors Still Hiding Behind Zoom Screens?’. A Times headline claimed that ‘Virtual GP Visits Are “Costing Lives”’. A GP also comments that ‘the current [media criticism] onslaught is the worst I can remember in over 30 years.’”

I know it, and most of us know it: the Tories actively work to turn the NHS away from its glorious founding principles – to meet the needs of everyone, to be free at the point of delivery, and be based on clinical need not on the ability to pay. The Conservative view is one of profit-making. Investment for the boys with their hedge funds and capital ventures.

We know why we can’t see our GP, why ambulances queue, and why harassed nurses are at breaking point. And why people die unnecessarily. The BMJ piece quotes a doctor who puts it plainly: “The real issue is that we are now seeing the fall-out of over a decade of under-investment in our service.”

This is not the NHS I know and love. Next time in that ambulance queue, if it’s not you, it may be someone you love. Let’s all yell together to call out the Government and keep this most precious, shared resource.

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