‘Broken’ NHS healthcare a key issue for UK voters

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Fatme Ibryanova, 36, will travel from Britain to Turkey next month, not to holiday but for a medical appointment about surgery she is struggling to get on the UK’s “broken” state-run health service.

The NHS, created after World War II to provide free healthcare to all, is a shadow of its former self, weakened by years of underfunding and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Getting an appointment with a doctor or a dentist is often an ordeal. Emergency rooms are usually overwhelmed, and waiting times for hospital treatment regularly hit new highs.

But the institution remains beloved by Britons, and the malaise afflicting it is one of their primary concerns going into the country’s general election on July 4.

Ibryanova has just seen her local doctor in Chelmsford, a London commuter town in Essex, southeast England, for an ear infection that has been causing her severe pain for months.

It has stopped her working and she needs an operation, quickly.

“I’m on a waiting list. I have to wait three or four months. That’s long,” she told AFP.

So she decided to go to Turkey, her home country, where she can receive treatment sooner.

“If you need operation, they are doing it like this,” she said, snapping her fingers.

‘Broken’

Ibryanova is not alone. More than 7.5 million people in England were waiting for treatment in April, a new peak despite recent investment by the Conservative government.

A recent survey suggested that less than a quarter of Britons were satisfied with the NHS, an unprecedented level.

“We have to wait three weeks for a blood test. We often have to queue to buy medications when you can buy them,” lamented 71-year-old retiree Christine Knight.

The crisis is particularly acute in south Essex, with one doctor for more than 2,300 patients at the end of last year, much worse than the national average, according to the Nuffield Trust health think-tank.

Two doctors’ surgeries have closed in Chelmsford in recent years, explained Marie Goldman, the candidate for the Liberal Democrats party in the constituency, which has a sitting Conservative MP.

“What is left is a hole. It is so frustrating for people,” Goldman added. Voters always asked her about the NHS, she said.

The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games celebrated the health service as the “pride” of the UK, she pointed out. But today, she said, it’s “broken.”

Hospitals here are among the worst in the country for cancer care, with more than three-quarters of patients having to wait more than a month to start treatment once diagnosed.

The local health body declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

Bobby Jacobs, a 30-year-old construction worker, recently had hand surgery at the town’s Broomfield Hospital.

He noted a lack of resources in a system that already relies heavily on caregivers from abroad.

“You can see on every nurse’s face that they are so overworked and overstressed. They are working long hours. There is not enough of them,” he told AFP.

Funding needed

Long and frequent strikes over pay and conditions, including a historic first walkout by nurses, have plagued the NHS over the past two years.

Low morale is leading professionals to leave the service or try to cut back on hours.

“It was not unusual to see 45 to 50 patients a day, sometimes more than that,” said James Booth, a doctor for more than 20 years who quit one workplace to go part-time at another.

He cited an ageing population, less time with patients, and a shortage of staff.

“We’re seeing worrying numbers of doctors, nurses and other professionals leaving early into their careers or not joining the NHS at all,” said Billy Palmer, of the Nuffield Trust.

Booth noted that two private clinics have opened in Chelmsford in recent years and are doing “very well”.

All parties, including Labour -- which is tipped to form the next government -- are promising to fix the NHS through massive recruitment, innovation and reorganization.

Experts remain unconvinced, however, saying what the system really needs is a massive injection of cash currently not available.

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