Compare and contrast the following sets of statements, the first from Westminster. According to the health secretary, Sajid Javid: “We don’t believe that the pressures currently faced by the NHS are unsustainable.” On the contrary, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, says the health service is on course for “gamechanging” investment of nearly £6bn. Meanwhile, the prime minister urges the public to get a booster jab against Covid. That, he says, is “our way through this winter”.
From the frontline, the NHS looks very different. The president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Katherine Henderson, says A&E departments are “already struggling to cope”, even before we reach the depths of our second Covid winter. The boss of NHS Wales, Dr Andrew Goodall, warns that the next few months will be among the hardest we have ever faced. The country’s most senior gynaecologist, Dr Edward Morris, worries that the coronavirus surge poses a direct threat to maternity wards, with operations cancelled, specialist staff redeployed and an already huge backlog continuing to build.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that the politicians live in a parallel universe to NHS professionals. There is more to this than ministers brave-facing it for the TV cameras, examining the few drops at the bottom of the glass and gamely declaring it half full. In the same week that Mr Sunak lays out his spending review, he and his colleagues are drifting into another round of Covid displaying none of the urgency or seriousness it demands.
Last week, as almost 50,000 people a day came down with Covid, the cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg laughed off the idea that he might don a face mask in parliament. While the government of which he is part advises face coverings to be worn in crowded places, the leader of the Commons claimed that Conservatives enjoy far too much of a “convivial, fraternal spirit” to comply. None of his cabinet colleagues have so far disavowed that statement, although if case numbers rise it will doubtless be quoted back to them again and again.
Throughout this crisis, this government has displayed only a grudging acceptance of mask-wearing, social distancing and the rest of what are termed non-pharmaceutical interventions. Ministers have placed all their eggs in the basket marked “vaccines”, without preparing for what happens when the immunity from serums wears off. And Mr Johnson has always preferred to make handling any crisis a matter for someone else to sort. Petrol shortage? Motorists’ fault. Empty supermarket shelves? Shops should pay staff more. Covid? Personal responsibility. What happens in the meantime or what the role of his government is are questions to be shrugged off.
The prime minister will doubtless point to the billions his government is about to pour into the NHS, yet the big problem is that little of it will help with handling Covid. The cash will not be available well after this brutal winter has passed and much of it will be spent on buildings and equipment. Yet the Health Foundation projects that the NHS needs 4,000 more doctors and 17,000 nurses every year just to clear its waiting list of 5.7 million patients.
Throughout this pandemic, the government has urged the public to protect the NHS, a reflection of the esteem and affection in which it is held. Now would be a good time for ministers to follow their own advice, by spending the sums that are needed where it will do immediate good and by treating this virus with the seriousness it merits.