Ambulances outside a hospital
Picture: © Peter Byrne PA Wire/PA Images

Strikes, ‘humanitarian crisis’, and the busiest week ever. What’s going on, NHS?!

We look at the numbers behind funding cuts and the 24/7 health service debate

Between junior doctor strikes, Red Cross allegations of 'humanitarian crisis', and a record number of hospitals having to send patients elsewhere, the NHS has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons recently.

So what's going on? We look at three major areas of pressure facing the health service to try and get to grips with the scale of the problem.

Surgeons at work

The UK has an ageing, growing population, which puts pressure on its health service

NHS ONS graph on ageing population

Basically, there are more of us, we’re living longer and we need to see the doctor more. From 1948, when the NHS was introduced, to 1960, the UK population grew by 2.4 million. From 1960 to 2015, it grew by 13 million.

That’s 65.14 million Brits, most of whom are living longer than they used to – the number of people over 90 years old per 100,000 residents has been on an upward trend since the 1980s. A lot of the delay in A&Es comes down to hospitals being unable to discharge elderly patients because of a lack of support available for them at home.

...and demand is increasing

And then there’s the current push for the NHS to be fully functional, 24 hours a day, seven days a week – the dispute that caused the recent junior doctor strikes.

According to NHS digital statistics, the number of patients attending A&E rose by 3.4 million between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The situation has got so bad that more than 20 hospitals had to declare a "black alert", which means they can no longer guarantee patient safety.

Not to mention the cuts to social services budget, originally intended to free up pressure on the NHS, but ultimately leading to a bit of a domino effect – lack of access to social services can push people into health services to fill in the gap.

To the junior doctors and their supporters, the proposal of a 24/7 workload without additional funding to match it will only cause more difficulty, putting patients' safety in danger.

UK population and growth statistics, 1960 – 2015.
Points to notice = Population growth going up, a lot. Growth, not so much. Source:

So where is the money, and how much of it is there?

You'd think it'd be fairly simple to find out how much the Conservative government has funded the NHS, and how much they've cut in comparison to the Labour government that came before them. Not so – the battle of stats comes down to a he-said-she-said of what you measure and how.

Unsurprisingly, Theresa May and health secretary Jeremy Hunt are pretty adamant that funding is going up. And in a sense, it is – from £97bn in 2010 to £120bn in 2017.

But the story doesn't end there. Firstly, Hunt told the House of Commons that this 1.6% boost to NHS funding was the sixth highest proportional increase in the NHS's history. But think tank The King's Fund took issue with this, bumping them down to 28th place.

Secondly, like you would with any budget, it's useful to think about this in comparative terms – i.e. how much is being spent on the NHS in comparison to the country's total wealth, and to spending under previous administrations. And in the NHS' case, that proportion is falling (as shown by the graph below.)

Considering the Conservative government's rhetoric that one of the prime purposes of the UK economy is to be able to “support the vital public services and institutions upon which we all rely – to invest in the things we hold dear,” it seems strange that when GDP – the main indicator the government uses for measuring how 'strong' the economy is – is going up, proportionate funding of the NHS wouldn't go up with it.

Health care spending as % of GDP
Health care spending as a % of GDP

So what is this really about?

In response to the Red Cross' claim of humanitarian crisis, the doctor's union BMA insisted that "Theresa May cannot continue to bury her head in the sand as the situation in our NHS and social care sector deteriorates." With a third of hospitals said to be failing around the country, it's hard to argue with them.

To opponents of the Conservative government, the lack of funds going towards the institution in proportion to the wealth of UK as a whole is a question of values, not finances. And as the former chancellor Nigel Lawson said, the NHS is “the nearest thing the English have to a religion.” In other words, it's not the kind of thing you'd want to get on the wrong side of the public about.

That being said, the money needs to come from somewhere – and it's a lot. Independent government watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, says funding will need to rise by 2% a year, (an extra £88bn) by 2067 to support the institution – let alone secure the 24/7 service the government seems to want.

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Reader Comments

  • WhereAreTheVikings

    What a terrible, terrible shame. Western Civilization nurtured capitalism, and now capitalism is destroying it. And these young people seem to welcome the invasion of their homeland. The media and schools have been very efficient in wiping out all traces of blood and soil.

    • prollawalllynotahumanoid

      Capitalism isn’t the problem. It’s corrupt politicians taking bribes and kickbacks from Globalists and the Chinese.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        Maybe I should have said crony capitalism. Although Italians importing Chinese to make “Italian leather” shoes is not crony capitalism. It is capitalism, pure and simple.

        • prollawalllynotahumanoid

          That would be crony capitalism and globalism combined. They aren’t concerned with the affect their policies have upon their citizens, the health and welfare of their society and culture or their economy. What it isn’t is fair-free trade to further national interests.

          • WhereAreTheVikings

            I’ve always seen them as one and the same, but perhaps they need to be named individually, just to bring home the point.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        But now that travel is so easy and borders are virtually down through H1bs and the like, theoretically you can’t blame capitalists for the pursuit of cheaper labor, although I do heartily blame them not being more patriotic than that. Perhaps the emerging nationalism will force them to voluntarily do what they should have morally been doing all along, and that is employing business practices that preserve their countries and nationalities. The government should be doing everything it can to encourage that, to the extent that small government should do anything but guard the borders and strictly, drastically, limit immigration.

      • Henry Lam

        It is China with its corrupted mindset affecting the world.

        • prollawalllynotahumanoid

          No it is not. Capitalism is the fairest and least corrupt system of all.

          Socialism and communism is based on authoritarianism, coercion and police intimidation. It has and always will be rife with criminality, bribes and kickbacks.

          Corruption can be anywhere but it is the very basis of socialism and communism.

    • Henry Lam

      The government is too weak. They do not understand the mindset of communists and how they educate their people. Those communist people are only loyal to their country and could be dangerous. The immigration law should only accept those who accepted multiculturalism and taught from a democratic education system. This virus events clearly has shown how stupid to take China as a friend.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        The government is not too weak. Just weak-minded about some things.

  • Gabi Rodrigues

    For how many days can a country maximum close their borders to foreigners maximum? Like now, with the virus, everyone is using 30 days. Can it be more?