A new poll finds that over two-thirds of the population are dissatisfied
The latest poll on public views of the NHS, undertaken by the King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust, makes for grim reading. Not only has satisfaction in the NHS dropped to its lowest level in 25 years, the speed at which it has fallen has also been dramatic: between 2020-2021, satisfaction plummeted by a record 17 points to 36%.
This is a far cry from the early days of the pandemic when satisfaction with the NHS soared. As newspapers filled with images of valiant healthcare workers and rainbows were repurposed to show support for our beleaguered healthcare system, the NHS enjoyed a huge bump in support.
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But this honeymoon was not to last. The reality is that Covid exacerbated a number of pre-existing problems facing the NHS, and this is now finally filtering through to the public. According to the poll, 65% attributed their dissatisfaction to difficulties or delays in getting appointments. Certainly, this is borne out by the figures — despite fewer people receiving a referral for treatment during the pandemic, the NHS faces record waiting lists, with over 6 million people waiting for treatment.
Unfortunately, this is just one problem out of many. Between 2020-2021, an estimated 1.5 million fewer operations were carried out, and outpatient appointments plummeted as hospitals cancelled clinics. Even more worryingly, A&E departments saw drastic falls in attendances, prompting concerns that many unwell patients had stayed at home and not sought treatment, perhaps as a result of government messaging. This, combined with the negative effects of lockdown, which saw an increase in mental health problems and obesity as well as a worsening in chronic disease diagnosis, has been hugely disruptive for Brits. For these reasons, much of the population has not only been waiting longer for treatment, but it has also been receiving less healthcare and becoming less healthy.
But perhaps the biggest issue of all is staffing. England has one of the lowest numbers of doctors per capita in Europe, and the situation is getting worse: NHS vacancies now sit at nearly 100,000, with an estimated shortfall of 50,000 doctors, and 38,000 nurses. Meanwhile record numbers of staff are considering leaving, due to burnout and poor working culture. As I have written before, none of Sajid Javid’s plans to overcome the current backlog address this fundamental issue.
So the effects of Covid and our policy response to it will not just be limited to 2020 and 2021. While a dip in public opinion two years after the pandemic was probably inevitable, it is unclear how it can recover from this point. Waiting lists are continuing to grow, and despite Javid’s target of a 30% increase in elective capacity, some forecasts expect waiting lists to breach 10 million before 2024. Without a commensurate increase in staffing, the NHS will always be struggling to catch up.
Perhaps it is finally time to have a discussion about the current state of the NHS, the demands placed upon it, and how it can be funded and run sustainably in the future. In Britain, we — perhaps rightfully — treasure the idea of a nationalised healthcare service, but it’s worth considering: if the NHS was a private company, and nearly half its customers were dissatisfied, we would be asking questions of the board.