Just. Give. Them. Some. Money. That’s all. Such has been the unavoidable – however unbiased the makers – message of every documentary about the NHS since … well, let’s say for simplicity’s sake, since documentaries set in NHS hospitals and other outposts began. With Covid-19, the number of the documentaries and the intensity of the message have increased. How can they not, during a pandemic and under a government that has seen in that pandemic the opportunity to line the pockets of its cronies when it should, at last, be investing in one of the glories of the country, a shining example to the world of socialised, free healthcare.
Back for a seventh season, Hospital (BBC One) is one such series rising in intensity as it turns to the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire Trust – the first to deliver a Covid vaccine outside trials – to examine how it is managing the continuing effects of coronavirus. The flood of Covid patients has receded, but now the trust is fighting a huge backlog of increasingly desperate and deteriorating cardiac, neurological, orthopaedic and cancer patients. These built up while every available resource had to be devoted to working out how to treat the victims that threatened to overwhelm every hospital everywhere.
The problem – if you set aside the one about the lack of money, which you cannot help but scream at the telly at increasing volume as the hour unfolds – is that sometimes there are not enough doctors, sometimes there are not enough nurses and, always, there are not enough beds in the intensive care unit. Before Covid, the trust had no patients waiting more than a year for surgery (which is good, provided you don’t think what the situation could have been if it had simply been given some money to … well, anyway). Where we are now is that the trust has 5,000 people who have been waiting, in varying degrees of agony and wholesale uncertainty, for operations for more than a year. A further 50,000 are waiting for treatment. The hospital can only offer half the number of surgeries a day that it could in the Before Times. We listen in on medical secretary Becky as she calls yet another patient to tell them their surgery will be postponed again. “I know,” she says helplessly to the unheard voice down the line. “There’s so many people like you in the same situation.” She puts down the phone and says to the camera, with the weary understatement that is the hallmark of the NHS worker: “It’s a very difficult conversation.”
The decisions about who is called in for surgery are made by doctors who convene from different departments to – in essence – compare patients and work out who is most acutely in need. Or, put another way, who is most likely to die if they are not operated on that day. Thus a young man whose liver is failing to such an extent that he has only a 75-80% chance of surviving the operation itself gets the last ICU bed that day. Elsewhere a hip operation for Nazreen, a 23-year-old woman with learning disabilities, is cancelled multiple times because, simply, pain even as extreme as hers is not fatal.
It is a brutal, brutal business. Although we don’t get much into the mental toll, to be brought up against the life-and-death responsibility the job involves every day must exact one on even the most hardened professional. Whether you blame a virus or funding – it was never meant to be like this.
Hospital manages to stick to its winning formula, balancing ground covered with deep-diving, personal stories with the wider management of institutions, staff perspectives with patients’, and keeping the whole digestible, accessible and compelling. It creates emotional engagement without indulging in sentimentality or manipulation (editing, before you object, is allowed in television programmes). It has maintained its integrity throughout its previous six seasons and it shows no sign of flagging, even as the stakes become higher and – because of the long-term, invisibly pressured nature of them – less dramatic.
But, God Almighty – just. Fund. The. NHS.