In a fairly typical piece of Government spin this week, health secretary Jeremy Hunt combined positive news that the Prime Minister has finally committed to increasing NHS funding with an admission that he has failed to improve patient safety, in my mind a pretty fundamental prerequisite of the job.
To coincide with the 70th anniversary of the NHS this July, Mr Hunt told the Guardian that since the economy was now in a stronger position, Theresa May had pledged to drop the 1 per cent cap on annual funding and is now committed to significant and sustainable budget increase.
Anyone working within the NHS will know how overdue and desperately needed this increase is. Too many people will have also learnt in the hardest way that ongoing and catastrophic underfunding of our health system leads to delays and mistakes that cause a devastating trail of hardship and tragedy.
Throughout the past 18 months, deeply concerning stories have emerged specifically about the devastating impact of understaffing and lack of training in NHS maternity services, ultimately leading to too many birth injuries and baby deaths. This is not something the Government should now be allowed to skim over in celebration of its long overdue promise of extra cash.
Long-term underfunding has left us with a shameful infant mortality record, the second worst in Western Europe. Whatever your attitude to the work of lawyers claiming compensation for those injured in this way, few can begrudge the families looking after severely disabled children whose injuries are caused by the negligence of medical staff the financial help to better protect their damaged lives.
Mr Hunt, who is now the longest-serving health secretary in history, is right to admit that he has failed to improve patient safety despite his so-called 'five-year crusade'. He has barely even made a start.
Fundamental to that failing is the continuing ethos of refusing to admit to patients when mistakes are made, until a civil claim absolutely demands it. Despite Duty of Candour, introduced across NHS services in 2014, the concept of transparency to patients and their families is little changed. What should be clear to Mr Hunt is that the two are inextricably linked – that patient safety and transparency go firmly hand-in-hand.
Until a culture of recognising and admitting to errors in systems and individual practices becomes the norm, patient safety will not improve. To learn from mistakes – and therefore to improve care - means acknowledging and discussing them openly to then urgently implement checks and improvements that ensure they simply never happen again. It does not mean sweeping them under the carpet and hoping they go away, until the next time.
Mr Hunt also admitted that Brexit has contributed to widespread staff shortages within the NHS. The number of nurses and midwives from EU27 nations, for example, coming to work in the UK fell 87 per cent last year while those leaving Britain rose 28 per cent.
What this makes painfully clear is that while we cautiously welcome promises of extra funding, the Government has a whole swathe of deep-seated problems to overcome before it should even consider mentioning birthday celebrations for our most important public service which barely has the strength to blow out one candle, let alone 70.
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