Sunday, 3 April 2016

NHS needs solutions not slogans

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on 1 April 2016

Lee Waters and Health Minister Mark Drakeford on a hospital ward in Llanelli (Photo: Alan Evans)

I think the NHS is one of our greatest achievements as a country over the last 70 years, and one of our biggest challenges over the next 70.

There have now been two major independent studies showing that the NHS in Wales is on par with other parts of the UK. Under strain, yes - but performing well, and providing excellent care in many areas.

But over the next month we will hear endless attacks on it during the election campaign.  Some of the complaints will be valid.  I know from my own personal family experience there are shortcomings.  But we have to balance that against the enormous challenges that the NHS faces.

Across the UK the health service is facing a very tough time. The reasons are well rehearsed - people are living longer, but often with health complications; medical advances and drugs are putting pressures on budgets, and overall demand is growing at a time when austerity is biting.

We need to have an honest discussion about the best ways of tackling these pressures if we are to sustain the NHS  In my experience election campaigns tend not to bring out the best in people when it comes to honest discussions.

For example, Plaid Cymru rightly point out that there is a shortage of doctors and nurses. This is not unique to Wales but a UK-wide issue with many hospitals struggling to recruit.

Despite the fact that there are now a record number working in the NHS in Wales (we have recruited an extra 1,000 consultants since we came to power) there’s still a difficulty filling the vacancies - but not for the want of trying. Part-time working, the large number of GPs retiring and a difficulty attracting doctors in particular specialties all pose problems.

These are real practical challenges NHS managers across the country are struggling with every day. But Plaid say it’s simple, they’ll recruit 1,000 new doctors and 5,000 new nurses. But where from?

It takes 10 years to train a GP, 14 years to train a surgeon, and three years to train a nurse. Where will Plaid suddenly magic this new workforce from? And how will they pay for it? It just doesn’t stack up. Especially since at the same time as they’re going to be recruiting these non-existent doctors and nurses they’re going to be re-organising the NHS in Wales.

Their hugely disruptive plan is to strip Health Boards of responsibility for family doctors and hand them to County Councils. Under Plaid’s plan they’d take GP services, nursing and community care out of the NHS and give them to Carmarthenshire Council to run. It will change the NHS as we know it; and I’m not sure it will inspire the confidence of many doctors and nurses.

What’s more, in the name of integrating health and social care (a laudable intention) they’d be opening up another split instead - a division between primary and secondary care. In seeking to solve one problem they’d simply be adding to another one.

And on top of that they don’t know how much this will cost, or how long it will take.

We face serious challenges keeping the NHS functioning when the Tories are slashing spending and imposing privatisation in England - serious challenges demand serious solutions. Plaid haven’t presented them.

Lee Waters is Welsh Labour’s Assembly candidate for Llanelli

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