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Health Leaders Accuse Rishi Sunak Of Being "Detached From Reality" Of NHS Crisis

Health Leaders Accuse Rishi Sunak Of Being 'Detached From Reality' Of NHS Crisis

Rishi Sunak delivered a major speech in east London on Wednesday. (Alamy)

4 min read

Health leaders have accused Rishi Sunak of failing to grasp the scale of the crisis facing the NHS after his first major policy speech this year, in which he reiterated pledges to bring down waiting lists in the health service.

Pat Cullen, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said his language "appeared detached from the reality of what is happening and why" in hospitals, while the Society for Acute Medicine's Dr Tim Cooksley said Sunak's remarks "woefully under-represent the appalling and insufferable conditions currently being experienced by NHS patients and staff".

In a speech setting out his vision for the country in east London on Tuesday, Sunak acknowledged the pressures being felt by the NHS this winter, saying "people are understandably anxious when they see ambulances queuing outside hospitals".

Sunak said: "At a time when we're putting record sums into the NHS and recruiting record numbers of doctors and nurses, health care professionals are still unable to deliver the care they want. And patients aren't receiving the care they deserve."

He added that the most "acute" pressure was being felt by the country's A&E departments, which have reported severe overcrowding and some patients having to wait well over 24 hours for beds.

But Sunak echoed the position already laid out by Downing Street this week that the NHS receives sufficient funding, and that the government was now putting "record" funding and resources into the health service. He also reiterated a pledge originally made by former health secretary Sajid Javid last year that waiting lists would start to fall in spring 2024.

The Prime Minister said the government had "practically eliminated" the number of people waiting over two years for treatment and was on track to eliminating 18-month waits by April of this year.

In response to Sunak's speech today, Cullen has written to current health secretary Stephen Barclay, saying the pressures being felt by the NHS were "far from ordinary" and could not be blamed on Covid or the high levels of flu cases being reported currently.  

She said the RCN, as well as NHS leaders, think tanks and parliamentary committees, agreed that staff shortages were "one of the root causes" of the disruption in the NHS, and called on Sunak to enter negotiations with her union over pay, which so far the Prime Minister has refused to do.

Nurses are preparing to go on strike again later this month, having voted to join the picket line for the first time in the RCN's history last month. The union is calling for a 19 per cent pay rise, which it says would make up for years of real-term pay cuts. The government is refusing to improve on the four per cent rise recommended by the independent pay review body, however, arguing that doing so would further fuel inflation. 

"The responsibility for equipping publicly funded NHS and social care services so that they can meet the needs of the population lies squarely with the UK Government," Cullen wrote. 

"It is disingenuous to insist that these services are adequately resourced, when the evidence clearly demonstrates that they are at the point of collapse.

"My members are saying ‘enough is enough’ for their patients as well as themselves. I urge you to show a renewed sense of urgency in opening negotiations on the current NHS pay award so that this situation can be avoided later in the month."

Sharon Graham, general secretary of union Unite, accused the Prime Minister of "insulting the intelligence of the British people" by not "referring to pay" in his keynote speech. 

"He knows that the suppression of pay has led to the unsafe and unsustainable staffing levels at the heart of the NHS crisis.

“By refusing to enter into pay negotiations that will be essential to any improvements in the health service, he has been responsible for an act of national self-harm. If he wants to take effective action on the NHS, we in the unions remain ready to enter into pay talks at any time," she said.

In his speech, Sunak announced five pledges that he would aim to deliver before the next general election, which must take place before the end of 2024.

As well as reducing NHS waiting times, the Prime Minister vowed to halve inflation and grow the economy this year, as well "stop" small boats from crossing the Channel. The five pledges were foundations "on which to build a better future for our children and grandchildren," he said.

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