Afsun Qureshi is a former communications director of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. She lives in London.
What fresh hell is this? I am jolted awake by an unholy pain on my knee at 6:30 a.m. in my home in London. No matter, two paracetamol and I am sure it will go away. Fast forward three hours and I am gurning in agony.
Later, at the general practitioner’s office, a very crowded waiting room takes a wide berth as I limp in, cherry red with fever. I do what is considered unforgivable blasphemy in Britain – I jump the queue to see the general practitioner. When no one complains over this act of heresy, I realize I am worse off than I think.
The GP immediately calls for an ambulance, and her face drops: The wait will be eight hours. She notes the despair in my eyes and declares: “It’s a first for me, too. Do you have an Uber app?” I do.
The first driver takes one look at me and guns it: “I can’t get sick. I have a family to support.” Repeat scenario for the next two drivers, one spitting out: “I ain’t the NHS.” Fair enough. Why are Uber drivers expected to do the National Health Service’s job? Finally, one takes pity and speeds me to Charing Cross Hospital Accident & Emergency.
And there I waited there for 21 torturous hours before I got called in to go for treatment. After that I spent six hours seeing specialists and undergoing various tests before I was released with a diagnosis and prescription. I thought my pain and fever were causing hallucinations, because certainly what I was experiencing could not be reality. Sadly, it was.
I had to limp my way, sidestepping patients lying on the floor, or squeeze my way through corridors lined up with groaning patients lucky enough to get a gurney. Projectile vomiting, open wounds, spurting blood, chest clutching and fainting were rife.
I am almost certain I saw someone die on the floor. It was after I had been waiting for 20 hours, and it was the first time I saw a doctor: a baby-faced medic giving CPR to a motionless body. After what seemed like hours, the poor doctor sat back on his heels in despair. No dignity, even in death.
These scenes were bush leagues worse than what I saw in Canada in 2017, at Sunnybrook and North York General Hospital, with my ill octogenarian mom. Back then, seeing the horrific state of the Canadian hospitals, and as a dual citizen, I thanked God that I lived in Britain with access to the indomitable NHS. I begged my mom to come with me to Britain – thank God she declined. Five years later, the NHS is breaking records for all the wrong reasons.
Waiting lists have a backlog of 6.8 million people – a historic high. Wait times for emergency room treatment and response times for ambulances are also the highest since records began.
So, what happened? First up – stop blaming the pandemic. The malaise started decades before, with poor middle management, colossal waste and a lack of staff.
Waste is exemplified best by the sorry saga of Baroness Michelle Mone, the life-long Tory peer who hounded MPs until her company received a lucrative government contract for personal protective equipment. Grievously, 25 million PPE gowns that were part of the contracts were deemed technically faulty, and never used. It was an act of ultimate waste and greed – and morally repugnant.
Then comes the bloated, inept bureaucracy. In the decades since the NHS’s founding, the muddling middle managers did not plan for either an increased or aging population. It’s galling that it is as simple as that.
Now add to this chaos: a lack of staff. There were 133,400 full-time staff vacancies in NHS trusts between July and September. Throw in that a recent poll stated that nearly 80 per cent of junior doctors are thinking about leaving the NHS. The justifiable nurses and ambulance unions’ wildcat strikes that make headlines here daily don’t help, but I for one certainly support them in their quest for fair pay and better working conditions.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is telling the country it’s “not relevant” whether he has a private GP. The Tory government is offering no tangible plan, just tossing more word salads than Harry and Meghan. But lo! Here is Labour Party’s Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, to the rescue:
“I will stomp out the nonsense bureaucracy in the NHS,” he said, describing the system’s inefficiencies as a “mind-boggling waste of time, energy and money.”
Hooray! Or humbug? The next general election is two years away, with no guarantee of a Labour win. Currently I am in Year 2 of a waiting list for three specialists: I could be very well be dead by then. What aggrieves me the most is once you are actually in front of GP or a specialist, the NHS treatment is world class. Let’s hope the whole system gets back there – and soon.