[Picture by Michael Farnwort]
On the 4th March 2017 I joined what was later described as the “biggest march for the NHS in history”. It was estimated that there were between 250,000 and 350,000 people who attended the march, and these people were NHS workers, support staff, members of their families, patients, young, old, and members of the public from all walks of life. The NHS affects every single one of us.
It was fairly easy for me to attend the march, after all I had already planned to be in London, as the day before was my wedding anniversary, and we had a hotel booked for that night. But why would anyone, on a break, as a couple, for their wedding anniversary, choose to spend a large part of that time attending a protest march? This is what I would like to explain to you.
I am a nurse, I began my training in 1986, qualified in 1989. My training was what is now known as the “old” system, it was not based in a university, we were mainly hospital based, but we did have to pass exams. Once the new university based systems were introduced we were also required to obtain degrees to be on a par with our newly qualified colleagues. Despite the new way of training nurses to degree level I have seen a decline in standards in hospitals, and where I now work, in the community. This is also despite increased inspection, increased targets, and increased expectations. It would be easy to blame the staff of particular places, or the training for this decline in standards. We so often in the press hear the phrase trotted out “too posh to wash” about degree trained nurses failing to give basic care. But I think the issues are much deeper than that.
In October 1994 I was heavily pregnant with my third child, 2 days overdue when I began to haemorrhage. Two local midwives were on my doorstep in minutes and the ambulance was not far behind them. I was taken to my local hospital, just 10 minutes down the road, where an obstetric team were on site, and able to operate within the half hour. Despite this my daughter ended up in the special care baby unit for 3 days, but there were no lasting ill effects and she is a healthy adult today. At this very time we are fighting the closure of our local accident and emergency, and maternity units at our local hospital. If these should close, people will die. These will be people like mothers and babies, we will return to a third world country where people die in childbirth. If I were in this situation then with no maternity unit for 30 miles both of us would not have survived.
Four years ago, when the cuts were really beginning to bite in health care, someone close to me took an overdose of very strong antipsychotic tablets. As a nurse I was fully aware that these tablets had an effect on the heart. This person took at least 40 tablets. We called an ambulance because I was concerned that my relative would collapse in the car. On retrospect we should have driven but then she would not have been admitted as an “emergency” and I thought that calling an ambulance would guarantee her priority. The ambulance took an hour to arrive, we called twice to find out what was happening. By the time we got to the Accident department, a 10 minute drive, she was becoming drowsy so was wheeled in in a wheelchair. There were 6 patients in wheelchairs accompanied by ambulance staff in front of us, and it took a further 45 minutes for us to be processed and allocated a cubicle, so releasing the paramedics with us for other emergencies. This was the first time I had ever seen this kind of pressure on our Accident departments. Even now I do not think people believe it until they experience it for themselves.
When we were finally seen by a doctor a further 30 minutes later and my now unconscious relative was hooked up to a heart monitor and blood pressure machine, the doctor then began to walk away. I stopped her. “What are you going to do for her?” I asked. The doctor shrugged. “It’s too late to do anything,” she replied. “We can only wait.“ That’s right. It was too late to wash out her stomach and treat her even though we had called the ambulance for her within minutes and even though she had taken at least 40 dangerous tablets. The reason it was too late? The queue in the accident department causing an onward cycle of delays. The queue in the accident department was actually due to a lack of cubicles, and the lack of cubicles was caused by a bed shortage in the hospital meaning patients could not be taken to the ward. This was one Friday night four years ago. There is far more I could tell about this incident, but I do not blame the staff for what happened that night, so I will not. Thankfully my relative did survive and is now fully well, but it could have been very different. Now we hear of this kind of situation where ambulances are queuing with patients, up and down the country on an all too frequent basis. This situation means that lives are being lost, unnecessarily.
It isn’t just the hospitals that are affected by the decade of underfunding that we have seen, and the diverting of money and resources from frontline services to consultancies, constant reorganisations, changing of logos and branding. It is the whole healthcare system which has been affected. From GP services to community nursing services where I work, all have seen a decline. We see an increase in elderly patients, and a decline in social care provision. The closure of local community hospitals has meant nowhere for patients to go who don’t need acute care but are not managing at home. We see patients who need help at home refuse it, because they can’t pay for care. I am concerned at the idea of an NHS no longer free at the point of use, as I already see people struggling to pay for and not paying for social care when they need it.
What this means for staff is a constant demand to do more with less. In the end this translates to less people doing more, getting to work early, going home late, missing lunch breaks, and tea breaks are completely unheard of. This is the conditions we work in. We are asked to pay to be nurses, we have to register yearly and pay to stay on the register. These fees have risen hugely in recent years. Hospital parking services have been contracted out and while staff used to “enjoy” discounted parking rates these have been hiked up to the extent that many of us are now being asked to pay to come to work on a daily basis. Meanwhile pay restraint has been forced upon us with pay not keeping up with inflation, effectively a year on year pay cut for the last 14 years, meaning some nurses and certainly some support staff are turning to food banks. I am not poor, but I am one of the lucky ones, if I had to manage on one wage and still had children at home it would be a very different story for me. This is why in 2016 I became a Labour party member, having previously had no interest in politics, when I saw that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was prepared to stand up for and fight for #Our NHS.
The reason then, that I chose to march, rather than go to a show, or go shopping, or take in a museum on my anniversary break, is because I still believe in the NHS despite all of the above. I believe in it because of all the above too. Because I know that the staff are the best people, who care and are holding it all together, that it was actually at breaking point when I used it 4 years ago and yet it’s still going because the staff will hold it together until their last breath to help patients, until they physically can no more, despite the cost to themselves. Despite the falling standards meaning that they are being blamed for poor care when the truth is that there are just not enough staff and resources available. It is not the NHS and it’s staff that are failing. It’s the government which is failing them.
I would like to thank my long suffering husband for coming with me on the NHS march.