A photo of an unwell child lying on a hospital floor, on top of a pile of coats, has only added to the political pressure facing British prime minister, Boris Johnson and his Conservative party in the run up to this week’s general election. The image was taken in an emergency department at a hospital in Leeds, England, sparking outrage amongst many on social media. What’s more, Prime Minister Johnson initially refused to look at the image during a subsequent interview with a journalist, which only added to the anger expressed towards his government. So, with the National Health Service (NHS) at the forefront of voters’ minds – alongside Brexit – do Conservatives have its best interests at heart?
Leeds General Infirmary is just one hospital in the NHS facing the pressure this winter, a particularly challenging time for the health service. However, winter in the NHS seemed to have started early this year, with already record-breaking long waiting times for patients in emergency departments across the United Kingdom. Headlines and images of patients waiting for hours on trolleys in hospital corridors (because hospital wards are full to the brim) are an almost daily occurrence. This is hardly surprising given that more than 17,000 hospital beds have been closed under the Conservative government, even as the health needs of the population have grown.
The Conservatives have been in power since 2010; the centre-right party initially forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats before winning a majority of the House of Commons in 2015. Under their leadership, the health service has suffered a number of significant budget cuts, in areas such as cancer care, sexual health services and social care in the community. In the build-up to this election, however, the Conservatives have laid out grand investment plans for the future of the NHS, such as building new hospitals. When putting these figures into context, by comparing them with what the service has lost, these investment plans seem like a drop in the ocean.
The Tory government has also been rightly challenged on staffing the NHS, with the service facing significant challenges regarding the retention and recruitment of frontline clinical staff. Nurses, for example, have been featuring heavily in the recent election campaign due to Boris Johnson’s pledge of 50,000 “more” nurses if he wins this week. The prime minister then clarified, saying 31,000 would be new recruits with the remaining number being nurses that would have left the NHS without intervention from his government.
Even if they do achieve this pledge, the health service currently has 43,000 unfilled nursing vacancies. I would argue that the government has not set out any concrete plans of how it will encourage nurses to either stay in or join the profession. Working conditions are often cited as reasons for leaving nursing, but given the cuts across the sector, the government seems to be only be adding to the pressure already weighing on the shoulders of healthcare professionals.
Funding for nursing and midwifery student bursaries was also cut, resulting in students now facing £9,000 per year tuition fees instead of fully-funded degrees. At the time, the government said this would lift the restriction on the number of places universities could offer. In reality, however, it saw a decline in the number of applicants, with certain courses having to cease due to poor intake. The Conservatives seem to be standing by this decision, with no plans to U-turn. I think we need to question how exactly Mr Johnson plans to recruit additional nurses, whilst standing by a policy that saw numbers willing to join the profession fall.
What’s more, the relationship between the government and healthcare workers is fraught. Although Johnson - like other party leaders before him - claims to be listening to those working in the health service, trust seems to have been lost. The former Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, drew up plans to reform the contracts of junior doctors yet was unwilling to sit down with medical union representatives and listen to their reservations. This saw doctors walk out four times in 2016 over concerns about how proposed working conditions would directly impact on patient care and safety. More recently, the Tories failed on several occasions to reassure EU citizens, many of whom are doctors and nurses, about their rights to live and work in the UK once the divorce with the EU is finalised. As a result, the number of EU doctors and nurses working in the NHS fell. This, coupled with Johnson’s anti-immigration and “hard Brexit” rhetoric, I fear more will follow suit.
On the whole, the notion of the Conservative government solving the NHS crisis is political fantasy. They present themselves as investing money into the health service but do not acknowledge the catastrophic funding cuts that were green-lit by them. In addition, Boris Johnson’s comments on immigration and proposed plans for Brexit will only add to current issues around recruitment of clinical staff.
Yet putting everything else aside, we all need to keep the photo of an unwell child lying on a hospital floor in our minds. Boris Johnson’s initial reaction was to not look at this picture, but the electorate certainly took notice. I think this picture has come to symbolise the vulnerable, unwell people who are not getting the care they deserve under the Conservative government. This week is an opportunity to change that.
- Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist.
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