Austerity and inequality: The NHS in crisis

The NHS has faced numerous crises over its turbulent history, but never has it reached such pitiful depths as to be considered a “humanitarian” concern.

Earlier this year the British Red Cross unveiled the true extent of the current crisis engulfing the health service by using the same terminology used to describe war zones in its assessment of the current state of care in the UK. Deaths of two patients after long waits on trolleys in hospital corridors prompted claims that the health service was “broken” and long waits for care, chronic bed shortages and staff shortages were leading towards what the head of Britain’s A&E doctors called “untold patient misery”.

At the root of the problem are two facets of modern society paraded this week by our very own health secretary Jeremy *unt. The first, by his hand, is the suffocating levels of austerity been dished out by Whitehall. Although “austerity” is a bit of a dirty word when it comes to healthcare there is no doubt that since 2010 the NHS has been subjected to its tightest funding settlement in decades, with little additional provisions made for a service that is tearing at the seams. Jeremy Hunt was accused of misleading voters over NHS budget increases in a highly critical report by the House of Commons health select committee which found the cash-strapped NHS is getting “less than would appear to be the case from official pronouncements”, so not only is it not receiving funding but we’re also been fed spin to cover the extent of the crisis up.

That is until January, of course, when the Red Cross report revealed precisely how bad things have got. But that’s of little concern to a man who is set to become the wealthiest member of the Cabinet picking up a pay cheque of £16.8 million on the back of the sale of his company Hotcourses – 722 times more than the average nurses’ annual salary of £23,245. Not that there is any wrongdoing in making a success of a business, but at the time of great crisis in the NHS it does highlight another potentially seismic pitfall: Inequality.

Research shows that not only do the poorest fifth of people in England have a lower life expectancy than the wealthiest fifth, they are also more likely to spend more years in ill health than the better-off fifth. Estimates reveal that social inequality was associated with more than 158,000 preventable emergency hospitalisations in England in 2011-12 and nearly 38,000 deaths from treatable conditions, which says a lot in a time when patients are lining the corridors of hospitals because beds are in short supply.

The key to solving the crisis is therefore to look at the root of the problem. A poll released today by the Mayor’s Fund for London, which is launching a £1m Kitchen Social campaign, found children living in poorer households are eating less fruit and veg, fewer meals and skipping breakfast more often than those in wealthy families. Eighteen per cent of youngsters in homes earning £10,000 or less have a maximum of just one piece of fruit and veg on an average day, with a quarter of their parents branding the five-a-day campaign ‘unrealistic’.

Which is why the new Kitchen Social campaign could set the marker for a potential solution. The project has set an initial target of raising £1m to get the project off the ground and is now calling on the capital’s businesses, community groups, borough councils, foundations, charities and individuals to join its drive to provide nutritious meals and positive activities to some 50,000 children and young people in London over the next three years.

Matthew Patten, Chief Executive of the Mayors Fund for London said: “All parents want the best for their children, but it seems there are many struggling to give their children the diet they need.

“There are 220,000 London children entitled to free school meals during term time, but there is nothing to help ensure they receive nutritious meals during the 170 days that they are not at school.

“It is not acceptable in a city as prosperous as London for children from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds to be eating a worse diet than those in more well-off homes.

“We want to try and ensure all children have access to healthy food, regardless of their background.”

To get involved in the programme visit mayorsfundforlondon.org.uk

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