At Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament this week, I pressed the Theresa May about fears that cancer patients at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford might face delays and cancellations to their care. She claimed that there were ‘no plans’ to cut cancer care. However, that very term – ‘no plans’ – is too often used by the government to mean that cuts are just around the corner.
My question followed the evidence outlined in a memo by the Churchill Hospital’s head of chemotherapy Dr Andrew Weaver in which he clearly warns NHS managers that the hospital does not have enough specialist nurses trained to administer chemotherapy. Dr Weaver writes ‘as a consequence we are having to delay chemotherapy patients’ starting times to four weeks.’ The memo also suggests that treatment to alleviate cancer symptoms be cut back from six cycles to four: ‘I know that many of us will find it difficult to accept these changes but the bottom line is that the current situation with limited numbers of staff is unsustainable.’
Clinicians warning NHS managers about staff shortages reflects a genuine concern about patient safety, despite the response from the local NHS Trust’s spokespeople that the memo was merely presenting a range of options for discussion. Demands for cancer services are increasing, but there are not enough nurses and other staff to meet the need. The charity Cancer Research UK says that the non-surgical NHS workforce dealing with cancer has increased by 4 per cent since 2014, but that cases of cancer have risen by 8 per cent each year. Ministers have simply failed to recruit and train enough staff.
The Tories continue to publicly deny there’s a problem in the NHS, and carry on claiming all is well. But patients, doctors, and nurses, know otherwise.
You simply can’t expect to meet the growing demands of an ageing population with tightened resources.
This is not just a winter crisis. It is an all-year-round funding crisis, a year-round staffing crisis, a year-round social care crisis and a year-round health inequality crisis, manufactured in Downing Street by this government.
According to research from the Kings Fund, NHS spending was 6.3 per cent of GDP in 2000. By 2009 it rose to 8.8 per cent under the last Labour government. Under the Tories it has fallen back, despite growing demand. Under the Tories, the NHS is having to deal with the largest ever sustained reduction in NHS spending as a percentage of GDP.
In short, we are going backwards. The time for action is now.
Labour’s Opposition Day debate that followed Prime Minister’s Questions pointed to the solution – an end to costly, unnecessary reorganisations, and sustained long-term funding that matches demand.