We are not prepared for a pandemic and the Tory Government are to blame

In 2017, 323 Conservative MP’s in the House of Commons publicly displayed their stance on adequate healthcare provision in a disturbing scene; cheering and applauding a successful block to Labour’s bid for public sector pay rises and improvement of emergency services. Last week, Boris Johnson applauded the work of NHS staff on national television outside No.10 joining the country-wide ‘Clap for our Carers’ action. He was shouting ‘‘Thank you for what you are doing, we are going to keep supporting you in any way we can ’. The Prime Minister has been brandishing his stance of #StayHomeSaveLives on social media, stating his utmost priority is to ‘Protect the NHS’. As the leader of a Conservative political party that has systematically undermined the health and social care sectors for the last ten
years under austerity cuts, this could not be more ironic.

Let’s get one thing clear – the point is not to discredit acts of appreciation towards frontline workers. The Covid-19 pandemic has instilled a sense of solidarity within our communities that recognises the need to care for one another during a time of great uncertainty and panic. But as the clocks tick in A&E departments and a sense of impending doom preoccupies the minds of care workers, we should all reflect upon the circumstances that have led us here.

The Prime Minister apparently feels strongly about supporting members of the healthcare workforce, yet we are amidst a staffing crisis . Under the Conservative government cuts to training budgets, pension changes, record patient demand and an increasingly pressured working environment saw nurses and doctors leaving the NHS in droves over the last five years. Let’s also remember that one fifth of the NHS workforce are not British citizens – so we will continue to see a reduction of staffing as Brexit unfolds. The UK has one of the lowest numbers of both regular hospital beds and critical care beds per capita in all of the EU. There are 6.6 Intensive care unit (ICU) beds per 100,000 people in comparison to an EU average of 11.5, and 12.5 in Italy. ICU units are already running at 80-100% capacity on a ‘good’ day. To top it off, the UK has the second lowest health spending per person out of all G7 countries. We are not equipped for a pandemic, and the Conservative Government are to blame.

Chart showing "The Countries With The Most Critical Care Beds Per Capita" as "Total number of critical care beds per 100,000 inhabitants in selected countries": U.S 34.7, Germany 29.2, Italy 12.5, France 11.6, South Korea 10.6, Spain 9.7, Japan 7.3, UK 6.6, China 3.6, India 2.3. Most recent US and EU data from 2009 and 2012 respectively. Asian data is from 2017. Sources: National Centre for Biotechnology Information, Intensive Care Medicine (Journal), Critical Care Medicine (Journal)

A genuine interest to ‘#SaveLives’ means prioritising the health and well-being of all individuals and communities whether there is a pandemic or not. How has the government provided necessary support measures for vulnerable groups such as people living with disabilities, people in the asylum system, people living in poverty,
people with no accomodation, people in need of mental health support? Under the Tory government we have seen relentless cuts to not only public sector provision, but also grassroot and community based groups who have been striving to take issues into their own hands. As a result, Covid-19 will impact our society in unequal measures. The psychological and emotional strain secondary to unemployment and physical isolation will have a disproportionate impact on people in precarious work, living on low incomes, with little savings or with insecure immigration status.

Groups such as Medact and Doctors for the NHS have written this open letter to Matt Hancock describing the unsustainable long term crisis underpinning the situation now. Demands from the health community include immediate secure housing, secure incomes and access to healthcare for all. Docs Not Cops have been campaigning for the latter goal since new UK policies were introduced in 2017. Theresa May previously stated she wanted to ‘create a really hostile environment for migrants’ back in 2012. Hostile Environment immigration policies saw the introduction of ID checks for people accessing secondary healthcare, in a drastic shift away from founding principles of the NHS. This policy has been working to change the culture – creating a system where
access to care is dependent on ability to pay. There are people living in the asylum system within the UK who already struggle to access and receive adequate medical care. During the next few months, it is imperative that every individual has free access to healthcare. It’s also time to challenge the government directly on their ethical
stance regarding the human right to this access.

When will the Conservative government stop putting a human price on austerity? When will they stop protecting the UK economy above its people? How many more crises will it take to get the message across? Will the Conservative government make radical policy change to create an adequate health and social care sector? Andrew Meyerson (Junior Doctor) hit the nail on the head in his article published just before the General Elections last December:

““Prime Minister, the NHS is not safe in your hands. Your negligence and that of your party over the past decade has contributed to the deaths of nearly 5,500 patients, and if you were a junior doctor like me, your licence would now be revoked, and you would be sent to prison.”

We are at a juncture where our sense of normality has been dramatically shaken and it will fundamentally reshape our perspective on societal values and priorities. The world won’t be the same again, so let’s work towards taking our future from the greedy hands of those who believe our health and happiness can ever be weighed up against profit. Never mind if they are clapping.

Anna O’Neill

Doctor and member of Glasgow Docs Not Cops

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