The NHS is a “demoralised, degraded and confused” health service two years into a government re-organisation, shadow health minister Andy Burnham has claimed.
In a speech to union members in Birmingham, Mr Burnham said the government was “guilty of gross mismanagement of the NHS”, which had left patients and staff “unsure who is responsible for what”.
He also claimed one symptom of what he branded the “human price of this government’s cost of living crisis” had been an increase of 145,000 more elderly admissions to hospitals for treatment of winter-linked conditions, since the last Labour government.
In a key-note address, Mr Burnham said A&E as the barometer of the health service was in “seemingly permanent crisis”, with 633,000 more attendances nationally since the coalition came to power.
In a speech entitled State of the NHS, he claimed the problems afflicting emergency departments up and down the country had been caused by a top-down re-organisation which had left the NHS demoralised, while the government’s failure to tackle the issue of the cost of living and a campaign of cuts which meant that social care was “on the verge of collapse”.
Mr Burnham also strongly criticised what he called the “competition regime” which had been imposed on the NHS, bemoaning figures stating that clinical commissioning groups had spent £5m securing legal advice in the field since April 2013.
He revealed that Labour will be bringing a debate in the House of Commons on the national situation and “repealing the government’s competition regime” on 5 February.
Mr Burnham put the surge in emergency department admissions down to three reasons. “David Cameron has made it harder to see your GP,” he said, because the coalition had done away with Labour’s guarantee of an appointment within 48 hours.
“Now, the story I hear up and down the country is of people phoning surgeries only to be told there is nothing available for days.”
He added: “What will they do? Go to where the lights are on – A&E.”
Mr Burnham said the government had also cut almost £2bn from adult and social care budgets.
“We have an appalling race to the bottom on standards with 15-minute slots, minimum wage pay [for care workers], and zero-hour contracts. Over-stretched care workers having to decide between feeding people or helping them wash.
“Social care in England is on the verge of collapse and yet last year [health secretary] Jeremy Hunt handed back a £2.2bn under-spend to the Treasury.”
He said as a result, older people were “being allowed to drift towards A&E in record numbers”, pointing to a report by independent regulator the Care Quality Commission stating that about half a million elderly emergency admissions were avoidable.
Mr Burnham said mental health budgets had also suffered. “It’s no wonder we’ve heard growing evidence of highly vulnerable people being held in police cells or ending up in A&E because no crisis beds are available,” he added.
The shadow health secretary said A&E had now “become the last resort for the vulnerable” where people know they were guaranteed to see a doctor.
Mr Burnham said the third reason for the surge in presentations to emergency departments was “the cost of living crisis” which had seen more admissions among the elderly presenting with respiratory and circulatory conditions.
He said the increase, up from 908,738 in 2009-10, to 1.05 million in 2013-14, was down to the fact people were struggling to pay energy bills to heat their homes.
“Since the election, there had been a dramatic increase in the number of older people admitted to hospital for cold-related illnesses,” he said.
“There have been 145,000 more occasions when over-75s had to be treated in hospital for respiratory or circulatory diseases than in 2009-10.
“This is the human cost of this government’s cost of living crisis, and their failure to stand up to the energy companies.”
A Department for Energy and Climate Change spokesman said: “Last winter had particularly long periods of cold weather, and all across Europe we saw increased cases of flu and respiratory conditions.
“This government is working to help vulnerable people with their energy bills through the warm home discount, providing a £135 rebate on electricity bills to more than 1.2 million of the poorest pensioners, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments.”
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