I wish Boris Johnson could sit in my GP’s chair...
...and tell my sick and suffering patients we cannot give them what they need.
Originally featured in The Independent 10 December 2019
While Boris Johnson refused to look at a picture of 4-year old Jack Williment-Barr sleeping on a hospital floor, I was at work as a GP, unable to ignore the impact of 9 years of Conservative government on our NHS and my community.
Our health service is at breaking point: we’ve lost over 1 in 10 beds since 2009; there are over 40,000 nursing vacancies; and the numbers of so-called A&E “trolley-waits” have increased fourteen-fold since 2010. Meanwhile, 4.4 million people are waiting for an operation – the highest number since records began.
The problem with these figures, however, is that they allow us to detach from the reality they describe.
On Monday, I saw a 9-year old patient who has been waiting seven months for an operation that has been postponed twice due to a shortage of hospital beds. As a result, he’s missed a critical number of days of school. His parents are at their wits’ end, unable to stand seeing their child in constant pain. The surgical team tells me that they’re trying to squeeze him in, but it’s likely to take months – something I found incredibly difficult to tell the boy’s parents. I can only imagine how hard the conversations must have been for my Intensive Care colleagues who recently had to break the news to families that the nearest children’s intensive care bed was in Sweden.
Then there is the woman I saw who has been having daily panic attacks. The attacks are triggered by fears that her housing benefit will be cut, and she will be made homeless and die on the streets. Her fears are not unfounded: she recently lost her Disability Living Allowance. It was hard to reassure her knowing that homelessness has risen 133% since 2010, and that last year 726 homeless people died – the highest year-to-year increase since records began.
Then there is the man I signed off work for a work-related injury, who cried because his zero-hours contract doesn’t cover sick pay, and he doesn’t know how he’ll cope over Christmas.
I also signed a woman off work with stress after her hospital job, which she’s been in for thirty years, was outsourced; she’s now expected to cover the job of two people in the time it used to take to cover one.
A man I sent for an urgent suspected cancer referral was seen and then sent back to me, despite worsening blood test results and having lost more weight. A colleague prescribed access to a food bank, use of which is at a record high.
All of these stories come from just one afternoon as a GP.
The NHS has a twofold problem. The first is chronic underinvestment. In the UK, we spend about 7% of our GDP on healthcare, less than our French and German counterparts. Meanwhile, a rise in austerity-induced poverty means that the NHS has to deal with worsening public health. The Office for National Statistics has shown a consistent increase in the number of registered deaths; despite the medical community speaking out about this for some time, politicians haven’t listened.
This election has shown us that we have a crisis in empathy that’s being modelled from the top.
I wish that Boris Johnson could sit in my GP’s chair and tell my hungry, sick and suffering patients that – despite living in the world’s sixth largest economy – we cannot give them what they need.
It is an abomination that we are so rich as a country yet have millions using food banks, homeless people dying on our streets, and children sleeping on the floors of hospitals.
On Thursday, we have an opportunity to end this injustice. Let us use this election to model the care for our communities that our leaders so woefully lack.