Winter is always a challenging period, and I want to thank all NHS staff and carers for their hard work and dedication. The NHS reported that, on the Tuesday after Christmas, it had its busiest day ever and that, earlier in December, it treated a record number of patients within four hours. Overall, A&E departments across the country are seeing 2,500 more patients within the four-hour standard every single day compared to 2010. The NHS made significant preparations for this winter, because winter is always a difficult time, including having 3,000 more nurses and 1,600 more doctors in full-time employment. Despite this effort nationally and locally, there remain problems we need to solve.
Having spent time in the A&E department at Treliske, shadowing the team there, I saw for myself the great job they are doing, often under considerable pressure. I also saw that many people who came along to A&E could have been cared for by their local pharmacist, Minor Injuries Department or GP. Despite the hard work of our local GPs, sometimes people wait too long to see their GPs. Sadly, the changes to the GP contract in 2004 resulted in 90% of GPs opting out of out-of-hours care. But we have been putting that right. Now 17 million people in England—about 30% of the population—have access to weekend and evening GP appointments. More than that, we have committed to a 14% real-terms increase in the GP budget by 2020. That is an extra £2.4 billion and that is expected to mean an extra 5,000 doctors working in general practice.
Ultimately, the issue of rising demand for NHS and care services is about demographic change and, as I have been saying for some time, more needs to be done to respond to that change. Over the decade to 2015, we saw a 31% increase in the number of people living to 85 and older. This is a cause for celebration, but sadly it is not matched by an increase in disease-free life expectancy. We know that when people of that age go to A&E at this time of year, there is an 80% chance that they will be admitted to hospital.
We also know that we will need to look after 1 million more over-65s in five years’ time and will need to continue to increase investment in the NHS and social care system. That is happening. But it’s not just about spending more tax payers money. It is about making smart decisions about how the money is spent.
The truth is that, to solve this problem, we need not only to increase the number of people working in general practice, which is why we are funding the second biggest increase in the number of GPs in the NHS’s history, but also to increase the number of carers and the support for family carers. Ensuring we have enough good quality care services is the responsibility of Cornwall Council. Cornwall Council need to address this and they and our local NHS leadership urgently need to get on with joining up the care they provide. This is happening in other parts of the country. This would prevent the ‘bed blocking’ we experience in Cornwall with all its dreadful knock on consequences, including cancelled operations.
As the local NHS consults on their plans for improving our local NHS and care services, I will continue to encourage the implementation here of successful approaches which have been developed in other parts of the country, where the joining up of services has improved outcomes for local people.
Sadly, as we approach the local elections in May, there is a great deal of scaremongering about the future of the NHS and talking down the considerable achievements that have been made. So let me set the record straight. We have more patients being treated and more saying they have been treated safely and with dignity and respect.
Next year the NHS will be 70 years old. I am determined to continue to ensure we have the safest, highest quality care anywhere in the world. When we have difficult winters and an ageing population, of course that makes things more challenging, but it also makes me more determined.
Published in the Falmouth Wave February 2017