Britain’s National Health
Service Engulfed in Crisis
January 9, 2018
In 2012, Britons delighted in the spectacular opening ceremony
of the London Olympics celebrating British history. One of the
curtain-raiser’s most popular sequences, drawing loud applause,
involved 1,800 dancers and 320 hospital beds honoring the
country’s National Health Service.
Six years on, and Britons are more likely to moan about the
world’s largest single-payer health care system than praise it.
According to patients, doctors and analysts, the NHS is buckling
and close to collapse, with emergency departments over-burdened,
hospital wards full and all nonessential operations — more than
55,000 of them — suspended because of a winter surge in demand.
Fueled in part by unseasonably cold weather, an especially
virulent flu strain and cuts in social care, leaving hospital
beds occupied by the elderly who have nowhere else to go, the
winter crisis has brought home to the country the fragile state
of the NHS.
Last week, an 81-year-old pensioner suffering chest pains died
after waiting four hours for the ambulance service to respond to
her emergency call. Patients are being left on gurneys for hours
in drafty corridors waiting for beds to become free, and
hospitals in the northeast are reporting an outbreak among
patients of the gastroenteritis norovirus, dubbed the vomiting
Norman Lamb, a former health minister, blames “tribal politics”
for failing to deliver “a solution to the existential challenges
facing the NHS and social care.”
“The winter crisis of the past few weeks is unfortunate proof
that the current situation is unsustainable, and these pressures
will only get worse as we contend with an aging population and
rising demand for care and treatment,” he said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has apologized for the
suspension of non-urgent operations and for some emergency
departments having to turn away all but the most grave cases,
but she insists there isn’t a crisis and the government is on
top of things.
Asked during a BBC interview Sunday if she could remember a
worse winter crisis, May said, “The NHS has actually been better
prepared for this winter pressures than it has been before." She
added, "You mentioned operations being postponed. That was part
of the plan.”
May pointed to top-up funding of $450 million announced last
month. But her own health minister, Jeremy Hunt, has hinted much
more needs to be done to restore the world’s fifth largest
employer, and argues it would be better if NHS funding were set
on a 10-year time frame.
More than 90 lawmakers have signed a letter calling for a
cross-party convention to discuss how the NHS can be funded to
cope with a graying population that lives longer. The Center for
Policy Studies warned Sunday that money from general taxation
won’t be enough to fund the growing pressures of an aging
population and increasing demand. “Alternative, additional
sources of revenue for the NHS” need to be identified, it
Long view needed
Lord Saatchi, a coauthor of the CPS report, said a long-term
funding plan not tied to short-term political objectives is
“The wonderful dream of the NHS is turning into a recurring
winter nightmare, and leaving it alone is a recipe for long-term
catastrophe,” he said.
The NHS lags behind many of Europe’s other health systems — most
funded by a mixture of private and public means — when it comes
to medical outcomes. Britain has the most overweight young
adults in Europe, with 29 percent of women under 25 classified
as obese. Obesity, depression and dementia are all on the rise.
say the NHS can take partial credit for the rise by about 10
years in life expectancy during the past half century. But it is
ill-equipped to deal with one of the spin-offs of increased life
expectancy — chronic ill-health.
The service’s annual budget has risen over a hundredfold since
its founding in 1948 — its annual budget is $170 billion, about
10 percent of the country’s GDP. But chronic care costs now
account for more than 80 percent of the NHS budget. Some
analysts are forecasting that treating patients suffering Type 2
diabetes alone will account for 25 percent of the NHS budget by
The frontline NHS emergency departments are taking more of the
strain as other services are cut, including walk-in clinics — 40
percent of which have been closed in recent years. The service
is woefully short of family doctors and nurses, whose salaries
have been cut, and it is finding it hard in the wake of the
Brexit referendum to recruit more from Europe, which supplies a
large proportion of the NHS’s junior doctors and nurses.