Crisis? What crisis! Tackling the health emergency in the face of government denial
Rhun ap Iorwerth MS writes about the current crisis in our health service and offers five practical steps to put our NHS on the road to recovery
This article was published in Wales Online, Thursday 26 January 2023
Mark Drakeford must acknowledge the scale of the crisis in the Welsh NHS
Crisis? What crisis! That’s the clear message emanating from Labour here in Wales when it comes to our health service.
This is despite record breaking waiting times for emergency services, the slowest ambulance response times on record and workers taking to the picket lines – some for the first time. This is despite workers and the organisations that represent them across the NHS saying it’s a crisis. And this is despite Labour counterparts in England and Scotland declaring a health crisis in their respective nations.
Words matter. Admitting there’s a crisis is an important acknowledgement of the scale, the gravity, and the urgency required to meet the challenges faced. It also tells the workforce that their cries are being heard.
Acknowledging the crisis would also be a step towards Labour admitting responsibility for the current state of the health service here in Wales. After all, it is the Labour party that is in government in Wales, and has been for the past 25 years. And with health being fully devolved to Wales, it’s Labour that’s responsible for the (mis-)management of the health service.
Yes, the Tories in Westminster currently hold the purse strings, but Welsh Government is not without power here in Wales, and we’ve used every opportunity in the Senedd to call on them to use their power to address the crisis.
But without admitting there is a crisis in the first place, how are patients, staff and we in opposition to trust that Labour Welsh Government can come up with the solutions needed to save the NHS and put it on the road to recovery?
It’s against this backdrop that Plaid Cymru has launched our 5 point plan to tackle the crisis in our health service.
This isn’t about point scoring. This is about offering good ideas and practical solutions so that we can heal our NHS together. For that reason, we have been in conversation with front line workers and the organisations that represent them to come up with five things that we believe will make a real and positive difference to everyone across the service.
This starts with paying our workers fairly, and this is why pay is the first point in our plan. Our workforce is the bedrock of the health service, and this foundation is crumbling.
The First Minister recently claimed that making an improved pay offer would mean taking money out of other areas of the health service – but this is a false dichotomy. Providing a credible and substantive pay award for NHS workers would be an investment towards a more sustainable and resilient health service.
Furthermore, we do not accept the Welsh Government’s claim that there is no money available. We’ve done the calculations! There are sufficient funds available in this financial year to offer more than the 4.8% currently on the table.
2. Workforce Retention
The second step in our plan focuses on the workforce. There are 3,000 NHS vacancies in Wales at present, plus nearly half of the medical students in Wales relocate to England due to greater availability of foundation posts. This is just tip of the iceberg.
This isn’t just about creating a workforce plan – of course, that’s needed, but Welsh Government needs to set out clearly how it is to be delivered, with targets and full costings, and make sure it accurately reflects the current needs and gaps in the Welsh NHS workforce.
There is too great a reliance on private agencies, and therefore too great a cost to the NHS. Any solution to this mustn’t be about stripping away the flexibility that agency working offers, but be about stripping away private profit from agency working. So, our proposal is to create a public staffing agency.
The third point in our plan – and it’s one I make no apology for – is to give greater priority to preventative health measures.
Making preventative health care an all-encompassing, holistic and explicit aim of Welsh Government policy is so important. Building a Healthier Wales, one that is less dependent on prolonged primary care, should be a core focus of all departments, not just health.
4. Health and Social Care Interaction
The fourth step is to improve the interaction between health and social care provision. We heard on the news recently that senior NHS staff were advised by the Welsh government to discharge people who are well enough to leave, even without a package of care.
This is because there are patients who are well-enough to be discharged from hospital, but cannot access the social care packages they require – resulting in so called ‘bed-blocking’. This in turn has a knock on impact on ward capacity and hospital waiting times.
This speaks volumes about a lack of joined-up and strategic thinking on the interaction between health and social care, an issue that has long been highlighted by the healthcare sector. Our plan directly addresses the action that should be taken to address this.
5. Delivering the Recovery
Finally, we need to create a resilient health service fit for the future through a clearly signposted recovery plan.
Labour in Wales has had a very long time to create a more resilient and better equipped health service - 25 years, in fact. This point is about making the new NHS Executive fit for purpose with the power to make real change, but also about taking the steps to tackle waiting times.
Earlier this week I visited an elective surgery hub at Clatterbridge campus to learn first-hand about the kind of positive change that innovative and collaborative thinking can bring. The hub’s core focus is to focus on reducing waiting lists – a recovery programme that builds capacity for urgent demand by separating the acute and elective services entirely. Whilst a solution may not look exactly the same in Wales, one thing is clear – we must learn from good practice, and create a resilient health service that’s fit for the future.
There is so much that needs to be done following two decades of Labour mismanagement, but Plaid Cymru’s plan offers give things that we believe will make a real and positive difference to everyone across the health service – front line workers, patients and those that administer it - everyone who wants see our NHS being saved.