The crisis in the NHS has hit the headlines in recent months. Not only have junior doctors been pushed into taking strike action against Tory attacks, but healthcare providers across the country are being stretched to breaking point as a result of long-term under-funding. The situation, as our correspondent reports, is particularly acute in the mental health services.
We are used to sensational headlines in the media with regard to our health services, but an area often less explored is that of mental health. A leaked government report earlier this year “painted a devastating picture of England’s mental health services”, stating that, “three quarters of those with psychiatric conditions are not being helped” (The Guardian 13/2/16). One-in-four Britons experience problems every year. Despite this, statistics from the NHS’s health and social care information centre showed that the number of qualified psychiatric nurses has fallen by a massive 10.8% from 2010 to 2015.
It is a similar situation in community psychiatric services, and this at a time when many more vulnerable people are looking for mental health treatment. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has pointed to the acute shortage of nurses, with mental health trusts among those worst affected. According to Andrew Grice, writing in the i newspaper on 11th August this year, even the Prime Minister, Theresa May, “followed fashion by recognising that mental health has been neglected for far too long”!
Even a casual trawl of the press reveals an unrelenting catalogue of increasingly worrying headlines point to the depth of the crisis in our health services generally, of which mental health is a part. As recently as September 2016, NHS Providers, which speaks for hospital trust chief executives, gave a gloomy assessment of the state of English hospitals. They spelled out a litany of staff shortages, massive overspends and warnings that the NHS is reaching breaking point after years of underfunding. When the Chief Executive of NHS Providers states in the press that “NHS performance rarely goes off the edge of a cliff”, but has instead faced “a long, slow decline”, it reinforces a conversation I recently had with an administrative assistant in Community Mental Health and a Labour Party member in my own CLP.
Sliding towards disaster
This worker indicated that serious changes had taken place over time, carried out in an almost stealthy manner, gradually chipping away at services and facilities that make patients’ lives better, but which are seen as expendable and fair game for cuts. While management seem keen, she said, to promote these changes as positives, from her perspective they simply show the erosion of the services available for the vulnerable people she deals with every day. Particularly upsetting are the ways in which the role of carers of mental health patients have deteriorated over time – a clear example of the slide towards disaster suggested by the NHS Providers Chief Executive.
As has been widely reported, the morale of health service workers across the board is at an all-time low. It didn’t surprise me to hear of the problems faced by this worker when she described colleagues in both administrative and nursing sections regularly breaking down in tears, faced with the problems caused by staff shortages and increased workloads. Underlining the human dimension of increased austerity, the website of MIND, the mental health charity, recently highlighted new research (posted 11/8/16) taken from a poll of over 1000 primary care workers, which revealed that almost nine in ten (88% / 56% nationwide) find their work life stressful. This one statistic alone gives an insight into the multiple pressures facing health staff.
A wealth of reports, research, statistics and first-hand accounts on an almost daily basis give the lie to government responses, which reek of complacency despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Faced with appeals from their own hospital trust chairs and chief executives to heed dire warnings, official responses remain bland and unruffled despite the increasingly angry mood amongst both public and professionals. While Chris Ham, King’s Fund chief executive, said in the press in September that: “The clear message from NHS leaders, doctors and nurses…is that they are increasingly unable to cope…and stay in budget”, the government spokesperson’s reply was “We know the NHS is under pressure…but we rightly expect the service to continue to ensure patients get treated quickly”. This is the true face of the Tory government – weeping crocodile tears but brutally expecting health workers to cope and the public to grin and bear it!
Slash, trash and privatise
The Tory government’s real aim – and those of Jeremy Hunt, who we now learn was the co-author of a book called “Direct Democracy”, which openly called for the NHS to be dismantled – is to destroy the NHS. To see the true effect of privatisation of such basic services one has to look no further than The Times newspaper [13th August 2016]. Here their investigative team blew the lid off the scandalous role private enterprise plays in mental health. It revealed that The Priory, the UK’s largest mental health provider, caring for thousands of NHS patients in 300 facilities whilst pocketing £450 million of public funds, is not even covered by the Freedom of Information Act. It has staunchly refused FOI requests concerning the deaths of children in its care. The group is apparently a “magnet” for investors – no wonder with profit of £500 million made when it was sold on in February 2016 to another investor for £1.15 billion. However, this is apparently in order as “private equity groups have….more incentive to focus on quality….as they need a return on a 3-5 year investment. They need something of value to pass on to the next person”. (William Laing of LangBuissson, quoted in The Times of 13/9/16).
What a scandal that the health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable people in society can be discussed in terms of naked profit! The mask has slipped as the public sees, again, the real face of a privatised health service. Clearly embarrassed by these findings from its own team of journalists, The Times leader felt it had to urge these health service bandits to ease off: “Companies have a valuable role to play…but with the opportunity to profit…comes the responsibility to serve…openly…” They have been warned by their own class!
It is absolutely right that Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to “reverse the marketisation of health” and “build a high quality NHS free at the point of delivery”. But in order to fulfil that and other pledges – in the face of intransigent government attitudes, massive financial shortfalls and lurking behind these, the naked greed of private investors looking for their next get-rich-quick smash and grab on the NHS – a future Labour government will need to be fearless in the face of furious opposition.
- Nationalise the main levers of the economy!
- Make these levers work for the 99%, not the 1%!
- Let the workers, doctors, nurses and their support staff, democratically run our health service for the needs of all!