United Kingdom: a nurses' strike symptomatic of a kneeling health system

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UK nurses' strike symptomatic of health system on its knees

Medical staff at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth

Longer treatment wait times, staff shortages, chronic underfunding and now a nurses' strike. In the United Kingdom, the public health system is overwhelmed.

The mobilization of nurses on December 15 and 20 – a first in 106 years – sheds a harsh light on the crisis through the National Health System (NHS), an institution on its knees after years of austerity, a pandemic and record inflation.

The winter promises to be harsh, has already warned Matthew Taylor, the director of the NHS Confederation which represents hospitals in England.

Some 7.1 million people are awaiting treatment in the country, a record.

Difficulties in replacing exhausted staff leaving the sector have further intensified a crisis that is set to last as record inflation and recession mean cuts in public spending. But the economic crisis is already adding to a series of problems that the NHS, an institution created in 1948 and financed by taxes, has been facing for years.

Because the system, which costs 190 billion pounds a year ($306 billion) and employs 1.2 million people in England alone, has long been under -finance.

For Richard Sullivan, professor specializing in cancer at King's College London, the NHS crisis has been latent for years.

Once you start to overheat the engine, you wear it out, he sums up. I think we are in for some very tough years.

Health experts say the crisis is exacerbated by 12 years of budget cuts under successive Conservative governments, as well as Brexit (many carers coming from the EU) and the pandemic, which has delayed non-emergency care.

The cost of living crisis linked to record inflation in the UK has sparked widespread social unrest across all sectors, from transport to justice and now health.

I don't know what to do, I don't know how my colleagues are going to do, laments Ameera (she did not wish to give her name), a London nurse while real wages are plummeting due to rising prices.

They are really struggling to feed their families, they go to food banks, she told AFP. According to her, the nurses chain the guards and suffer from the shortage of staff partly linked to the new post-Brexit migration rules.

NHS England must fill 130,000 positions, including 12,000 doctors in hospitals and 47,000 nurses.

Nurses are expected to care for four patients per shift, but are sometimes asked to double that while alternating day or night shifts.

We only have two eyes, laments Ameera. Morale is really low.

To the shortages in hospitals is added a lack of general practitioners. As a result, more and more people are unable to make appointments and are going to the emergency room for treatment.

I've never seen such an influx of patients coming in and needing help that they can't get, says Ameera. There are constantly queues stretching across the road, she adds. The NHS is on the brink of collapse.

Underfunded, the NHS has not been spared from scandal after scandal in recent years and has brought to light shortcomings in the day-to-day management of services.

There have been numerous reports this year of serious failures in maternity wards, contributing to the deaths of babies who might have survived with better care.

For Mr Sullivan, all these problems have no short-term solution and the United Kingdom must imitate countries like Denmark and Sweden and abandon a system of health thought in a logic of market.

The sector needs better organization, better structures, better leadership and better policies, he says.

UK on the brink of implosion

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