Being diagnosed with a serious illness is often a lonely, vulnerable experience. In such circumstances we place great trust in the health system, and expect it to move heaven and earth to deliver a positive outcome. Yet to many, and in increasing numbers, the NHS is betraying this trust. It has not met its target for 85 per cent of cancer patients to start treatment within two months of referral since 2015. Such waiting times are unforgivable.
It cannot have been helped by the series of lockdowns inflicted on the nation, with the health system deprioritising many non-Covid treatments. Far from protecting the population and the NHS, the measures were a disaster for cancer care. Operations plummeted while deaths from some types of the disease tripled, and it is to be hoped that the Covid inquiry will take pains to fully trace out the consequences of these decisions.
But beyond this self-inflicted injury lies a deeper set of problems. Dr Tom Roques, vice-president of the Royal College of Radiologists, told the BBC’s Today programme that there are not enough doctors to interpret patient scans or deliver treatments in a timely manner, and that NHS IT systems have become a drain on his time.
The sick and the bereaved do not want to be made the subject of a political row. They recognise that the doctors and nurses of the NHS are doing their very best in extremely trying circumstances, and do not want to “politicise” their experience. But the operation of state healthcare is inherently political, and any lasting solution must involve political change. Both major parties have shied away from making necessary but controversial reforms. They would rather shovel more money into the furnace than pursue the far-reaching reforms to social care needed to free up hospital beds.
We are often told that the great virtue of the NHS is equality; if this is so, it is equality of disappointment. Any healthcare system involves some rationing of resources; in private systems, this occurs through prices. In the NHS, it occurs through waiting times. It is not clear that this is particularly desirable, or indeed morally virtuous. Members of the public are increasingly aware of this, and record numbers are voting with their feet and opting for private healthcare. In the end, it may be through simple consumer choice, rather than political will, that the perennial crisis of the NHS comes to a close.