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A crisis of their own making

FULL marks to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt for noticing that the first week in January “is the busiest week of the year,” as it was last year and those before.

What a pity he hadn’t provided sufficient resources to NHS England for it to cope with the seasonal upsurge in demand as well as scheduled operations that have been cancelled.

NHS England acute care director Professor Keith Willett accepts that postponing operations and outpatient appointments for a month is “not ideal” for patients.

He should have left it at that rather than following up with a string of excuses for the government, claiming that a winter plan was in place, that it worked and that fewer operations were cancelled in the run-up to Christmas.

Prof Willett insisted that giving patients notice of cancellation is preferable to squashing them at the last minute, which has happened previously.

What he is saying is that things could have been worse but weren’t.

True, but not much of a consolation to patients given long-term notice of a procedure only to be told to forget about routine operations booked for January.

Deferring an entire month’s worth of elective surgery, totalling 55,000 operations, at the beginning of January puts a burden on hospital staff for the rest of the year and there is no guarantee that there won’t be further cancellations.

The Health Secretary’s hope is that these will be spaced out rather than concentrated like a winter snow storm that emphasises the reality that our NHS has been left without adequate means to meet its responsibilities.

Hunt, like his boss Theresa May, thanked NHS staff profusely for working “beyond the call of duty,” but that is not a once-a-year occurrence for workers of the highest calibre who understand the meaning of public service.

He notes that it takes seven years to train a doctor and three for a nurse “and it's going to take time for those nurses and doctors to come through,” but he ignores the effect on staff morale of government policies.

Many junior doctors chose to leave the NHS and this country to pursue their professions elsewhere because of the determination of Hunt and the Tory government to impose new contracts rather than negotiate them with the British Medical Association.

NHS staff, like all public service workers, have also suffered an annual reduction in living standards because of pay restraint imposed for seven successive years by the Tories and their Liberal Democrat allies in response to the economic crisis triggered by the private banking system’s self-induced collapse.

Offering warm thanks to the NHS workforce and apologising “unreservedly” to patients whose operations have been cancelled is marginally better than telling them to lump it, but it doesn’t mean a great deal.

The same goes for his acknowledgement of the “need to find substantially more resources,” but neither the governments led by David Cameron nor that by Theresa May has given any indication of understanding the scale of the problem.

The fact that, “in 10 years time, we’ll have a million more over-75s” hasn’t suddenly leapt out the woodwork, but the Camerons, Cleggs, Osbornes, Cables — and Hunts — holding office in post-2010 governments preferred to give tax breaks to their own class rather than invest properly in our NHS.

Words are cheap and the prospect of Hunt and co truly reversing their denial of adequate finances to our NHS doesn’t seem very likely.

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