Not a day goes by without the news of strike action; Royal Mail and Rail workers, Teachers, Nurses and Ambulance staff to name but a few. Most of those striking are asking for pay at a level with, or just above the current inflation rate. With inflation expected to continue to rise, this pay demand may just not be enough and the backlash from politicians and the media ever increasing.
Rather than focusing on the actual strikes, I am going to talk about our NHS workers and the huge pressures that they are all under.
A report published by the NHS at the end of November detailed that just over 31 million non-Covid related GP appointments took place in October, the majority of which were face to face. Latest reports of GP numbers say there were 36,733 GPs as of October; that is about 980 appointments per GP, per month. GP numbers according to a report by the BMA (British Medical Association), have been starting to decline since 2015; the NHS has lost 1,896 GPs since 2015, 598 of them having left since October 2021.
In 2020 the government sought to reverse this by pledging to recruit an additional 6,000 extra GPs by 2024; yet, as the numbers above suggest, this hasn’t been working out.
Why are they leaving? The BMA report suggests that the number of GPs switching to part-time hours is increasing because GPs are trying to avoid burnout, ill health and stress due to increased pressures. Many of the GPs who have switched to part time hours are reporting that they are having to work extra unpaid hours due to increased workload, with 16% of respondents to a BMA survey planning to quit once the pandemic is over.
What is this extra workload the GPs are facing? Well, of course the fact that GPs are leaving means that the remaining GPs are having to pick up the slack, but this is by no means the main reason. Patient numbers are increasing, there are now 0.44 GPs per 1,000 patients, down from 0.52 in 2015. The average number of patents a GP is responsible for has climbed by 17% from 2015 to 2,260. Appointments are also rising by 13% between the months of September and October.
GP surgeries are by no means the only sector of the NHS that is reaching breaking point. The massive decrease in hospital beds coupled with an increasing elderly population needing longer term NHS care is also increasing.
According to a report by the Kings Fund the total number of hospital beds in England has halved over the past 30 years while the number of patients needing treatment has gone up, so much so the UK has the lowest number of acute hospital beds relative to its population of any comparable health system in the western world.
Overnight and acute bed hospital stays even before COVID-19 reached an average of 90.2% and 95% in the winter which is way above the levels that are considered safe. The report further detailed how, since the pandemic, growing staff shortages and squeezing of the NHS budget things could get worse.
The NHS treatment waiting list has now reached 7 million; although exacerbated by the pandemic; this number was rising well before it started. The strikes are symptomatic of a problem that has been plaguing the NHS for years. With PM Rishi Sunak announcing that his government is working on ‘tough’ new anti-strike laws and hinting at the possibility that nurses could be banned from striking, the problem of NHS underfunding is unlikely to be solved and reports suggest that the funding shortfall could reach £7 billion next year. Over the last 10 years, NHS funding rose by 1.4% on average per year, which is way off the average 3.7% per year rise since its founding. Stopping strikes and not meeting the demands of NHS workers is likely to mean more workers will just leave and push the NHS into further crisis.