UK health service counts the cost of funding cuts

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by Véronique Dupont

Britain’s state-run National Health Service, described by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the country’s “beating heart” after saving his life, is creaking under the strain of coronavirus after a decade of underinvestment.

While millions across the country take to the streets each week to applaud cherished health workers, doctors and nurses are warning that they are being left to fight the virus without proper protective equipment.

That, along with insufficient COVID-19 testing across Britain, is blamed by experts on a decade of underinvestment following the global financial crisis.

“The UK National Health Service is acknowledged to have suffered from a funding crisis since 2010,” Elias Mossialos, professor of health policy at the London School of Economics, told AFP.

“NHS expenditure is 7.6 percent of (Britain’s) GDP, which is approximately the same as it was in 2012.”

Mossialos said a slowdown in annual NHS budget increases “has hindered the preparedness and response to coronavirus”.

£34 billion more

Ahead of their general election victory in December, Johnson’s Conservatives pledged to boost NHS funding by £34 billion ($41.9 billion, 38.4 billion euros). But because the figure covers a four-year period until 2024, inflation could take a large bite out of the sum.

The new government has also promised 50,000 more nurses through better retention and new recruits, as well as an additional 6,000 doctors.

New hospitals have also been pledged, but people did not count on one being built so soon.

Earlier this month, Britain opened a temporary 4,000-bed hospital to treat the most seriously ill coronavirus patients — the Nightingale in London.

While Johnson’s recent experience might prompt him to pump more money than promised into the NHS, experts say a big problem lies in Britain’s largest employer struggling to recruit staff.

That could even worsen following the country’s exit from the European Union.

The NHS, which claims to be Europe’s biggest employer with a staff of more than 1.3 million, currently has around 100,000 vacancies.

Britain’s government has responded to the pandemic by asking doctors and nurses to come out of retirement, even if many fall into the category of being highly at risk of catching the virus.

“In terms of nurses, the UK is one of very few OECD countries where the number of nurses has been going down,” said Franco Sassi, professor of international health policy at Imperial College London.

The NHS suffers also from a severe shortage of beds, according to Mossialos.

OECD data reveals that the UK has only 2.5 beds per 1,000 people, compared with six per 1,000 in France and eight per 1,000 in Germany, he said.

The UK meanwhile has around 6.6 critical care beds per 100,000 — around half France’s total and around fives times fewer than in Germany.

NHS appreciation

News bulletins show NHS nurses in good spirits, applauding and making guards of honour for patients who have beaten the virus that has so far claimed more than 15,400 lives in Britain. But the fact is that most have been left exhausted.

“We will see the effect at the other side of the epidemic,” said Fiona Johnson, spokeswoman for the health think tank Nuffield Trust.

“You have an exhausted workforce,” she said, noting also that many operations had been postponed to allow hospitals to deal with coronavirus patients.

Britons are making a point of paying tribute to the NHS, which was set up in 1948 and has long been a cherished institution.

At 1900 GMT each Thursday, people come out of their homes to show their appreciation for its staff and Britain’s other key workers, by applauding for a couple of minutes. Children are seen banging frying pans.

Meanwhile, a 99-year-old British World War II veteran, Tom Moore, on Thursday completed 100 laps of his garden in a fundraising challenge for healthcare staff, raising around £20 million. (AFP)

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