British Health System – Lessons for Australia

It is imperative that we repair our health system systematically and carefully to produce a higher bed ratio to the population than is currently being maintained; more nursing staff on each and every hospital ward; less waiting times at Emergency Departments; a larger and more robust Ambulance Service; and a better access to all doctor’s clinics so that drop-in apointments will become possible once again. This is the target and to get there it will not be easy or cheap; but to fail to progress towards this goal is to fail the people of NSW and Australia. The C4C understand the need and the urgency to commence the recovery of our Health System from the brink of the potential disaster that is before us, unless we take urgent steps as soon as possible. We need your support to get this job done now!

Britain’s NHS nightmare: How COVID-19, cost-cutting and burnout pushed the UK’s health system to the brink

By Europe correspondent Isabella Higgins in London
A hospital corridor with a row of gurneys along the side
Liverpool-based reporter Liam Thorp found patients lined up along an NHS corridor waiting for treatment. (Twitter: @LiamThorpECHO)

In a frantic hospital hall in northern England, a 92-year-old woman lay unwell on a trolley waiting for 33 hours to be taken to a bed.

She was so distressed she asked her family to let her die.

This was just one of dozens of horror stories reported in the UK media in recent weeks, as the country’s healthcare system comes under deep strain.

British doctors have been speaking out, some risking their jobs to condemn the “critical” state of the National Health Service (NHS).

The NHS, often hailed as the pride of Britain, provides health services that everyone living in the UK can use without being asked to pay the full cost of the service.

“Emergency medicine in the NHS is facing one of its most challenging times in our history,” Dr Ian Higginson, vice-president at the Royal College of Emergency Medicine told ABC News.

“We are having to treat patients in corridors, which is unsafe and undignified for those who need care.”

There have been reports of patients waiting 24 hours to get a hospital bed, and of families forced to drive the unwell and elderly to the hospital in a state of emergency because no ambulance arrived.

“We’re unable to offload the ambulances who are bringing more patients to us, so they’re queuing in our car parks,” Dr Higginson said.

“Then we can’t get the ambulances out to patients who need them because they’re stuck in our car parks.”

Emily Ball, a GP in the north-west of England, has a grim assessment of the state of the NHS.

“I think the NHS is not just in a crisis, I think it’s gone through the crisis and has now completely collapsed,” she told ABC News.

‘A humanitarian crisis’ in Britain

NHS bosses have pointed to a winter spike in COVID-19 and flu cases that have put a deep strain on a system already struggling with staff strikes and lengthy backlogs.

About 13 per cent of hospital beds were being used for flu and COVID-19 patients, according to the December statistics from NHS England. 

At least one in three patients who presented to the emergency departments waited four hours to be seen, according to November NHS figures.

“We are talking about national state of emergency, a humanitarian crisis,” said Dr Ball, who is also a spokesperson for the Every Doctor advocacy group.

A blonde woman in purple scrubs
British GP Dr Emily Ball says she believes the NHS has “completely collapsed”. (Twitter: Emily Ball)

Through her work with the organisation she had heard a number of “horrible stories” from inside hospitals, along with her own struggles to get her patients the care they need.

“We hear people are at this point lying on the floor of [emergency departments], there are not even chairs or beds left for them when they arrive,” Dr Ball said.

“We’ve had stories of people having to examine patients in cupboards, and of eight-plus-hour-waits in the back of ambulances.”

Hospital staff are under “incredible strain”, Dr Ian Higginson said.

A man with a buzz cut
Dr Ian Higginson says the NHS is facing one of its most challenging times in British history.(Twitter: Dr Ian Higginson)

“We’re having real problems with staff morale, moral injury and moral distress, which is causing problems with our workforce.”

The problems being experienced by the NHS now “were avoidable”, said Dr Higginson.

He said the British situation should serve as a warning to other health services around the world — including Australia.

How did it get so bad?

Some may find it surprising that the situation in UK hospitals could now be worse than at the height of the pandemic.

“The whole health service, along with the whole country, was orientated towards that single problem during the peak of the pandemic,” Dr Higginson said.

“What’s happening now is that we’ve got a health service which has been under-invested in, a social care system which is in real trouble, plus some extra stresses from COVID-19 and influenza, all coalescing.”

Dr Ball said she still has confidence that patients who are found to have serious illnesses are often seen very quickly.

But she said it is those with less urgent issues who often end up waiting, sometimes weeks or even months.

“General practice was already kind of on its knees, I think pre-pandemic,” Dr Ball said.

More than 7 million people are currently on NHS waiting lists in England, which is about 12 per cent of the population.

“We have a growing population, massive GP shortages which have been known about for a very, very long time, and after the pandemic wait times for surgeries and screening just blew out.

“There’s been this growing amount of work to do with a dwindling workforce,” said Dr Ball.

A female paramedic opens the door to an ambulance
Doctors say ambulances are waiting hours to drop off patients at overloaded hospitals. (Reuters: Henry Nicholls)

Other countries should make sure not to sleepwalk into a similar scenario, said Dr Higginson who worked in New Zealand and Australia for many years.

“I think try and learn the lessons from this, it’s really important to face up to these issues and try and get on top of them early.

“Let things get out of hand the way we did in the UK and it’s very difficult to recover — because there aren’t any quick fixes.”

What’s being done?

The UK government has been forced to address the concerns raised by doctors, after negative media coverage about the NHS shortfalls in recent weeks.

Rishi Sunak in a face mask leans on a counter at a nurses' station
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says people can hold him to account if NHS waiting lists in England do not fall in two years.(Reuters: Leon Neal)

In his first major speech of the year British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed reducing NHS waiting lists in England is one of his five key promises for this parliament.

He said his government had already made gains by almost eliminating the number of patients waiting over two years for treatment.

Some doctors said far more action was needed, particularly to address the current situation with emergency care.

Meanwhile, nurses and ambulance drivers look set to continue strikes in the weeks ahead, with action planned throughout January.

Many find it hard to imagine the unions and government will be able to reach an agreement before the planned action.

The Royal College of Nurses is calling for a 19 per cent pay rise to battle inflation, but the government said it is unaffordable and has offered NHS staff in England and Wales an average increase of 4.75 per cent.

Nurses holding placards outside a hospital
NHS nurses say they need a pay rise to keep up with inflation. (Reuters: Maja Smiejkowska)

“The NHS is in a real state of crisis at the moment, but we’re not seeing a great deal of response from our policymakers and high-level leaders,” Dr Higginson said.

“We’re still fighting for acceptance of the problem. Before then we can’t do much.

“For those of us who became doctors to help people, this whole situation is just devastating, we just can’t provide the care we would like to,” said Dr Ball.