Save the NHS: We've reached a crucial point in the health service's history. We cannot let it die – Christine Jardine

There are moments in many of our lives when the professionalism and kindness of people who are basically strangers is what gets you through the most heart-breaking of moments.
Many nurses are concerned about the NHS's ability to look after its patients' needs (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Many nurses are concerned about the NHS's ability to look after its patients' needs (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Many nurses are concerned about the NHS's ability to look after its patients' needs (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

I am thinking of those NHS staff who may have been caring for your loved one, or you, or have been there when you had to hear the most challenging of news. For you, it is a singular moment, perhaps etched forever in your mind or life-changing in its impact but experienced only once.

For those strangers, however, it is a recurring theme of their working lives and an experience repeated if not daily then regularly, and always with the well-being of others at its heart. That was never truer than during the pandemic when those individuals put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis.

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So to believe that those same people could be pushed to the point where they are prepared to say “no more” is almost unfathomable. And yet it has happened. In a few days, we will likely know if our nurses have indeed reached breaking point and opted to reject the government’s latest, and they say final, offer.

I hope not. But regardless of their decision I think the time has come when we must recognise that the situation and conditions in which we ask them to work are unacceptable. We should acknowledge the campaign they are waging is as much on our behalf and for our protection as anything else. And that those responsible for the political and practical management of our NHS have let them, and us, down very badly.

The world in which we stood and applauded each Thursday in thanks for what health and social care workers were going through and protecting us from seems like a lifetime ago now. Those in power, who made so much capital out of joining the tributes at the time, seem more noticeable in their absence now that more tangible and long-term support is needed.

Just recently I spent time with nurses I know and have watched with enormous respect as they pursued a career whose demands on their time, patience and emotional well-being are far beyond my capabilities. I listened silently as they opened up about the issues they face on their wards, and their concern that patients' needs are not being best served.

It was not about their own salaries but about the lack of financial resource in the service and the impact on people’s lives. What I heard galvanised me into action on their behalf and made me proud of what they are doing on ours in often the worst of circumstances with lamentable support.

There is surely no denying where the responsibility for that lies? At the moment, the NHS in Scotland has the worst waiting times in its history and this winter is predicted to be the worst it has ever had to cope with. Worse even than the pandemic.

For far too long, the SNP has played fast and loose with our NHS and allowed record waiting times to become the norm while staff are overworked, overwhelmed and undervalued. My own party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has called for a burnout prevention strategy and a staff assembly to blunt the sharper edges of the crisis, something those in power seem determined to ignore.

In my constituency, I have heard too many examples. People have come to me about family, friends, neighbours who have had to lie for hours, into double digits, waiting for an ambulance. All of those incidents the result not of professional failure, but of a system and staff stretched to breaking point and by personnel shortages and under investment. I am told that while improvements and advances are being made to reduce delayed discharges in my own health area, Lothian, the Scottish figures have worsened.

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Leaked documents recently revealed that things had become so desperate that at least one health board felt it was being encouraged to consider a two-tier system as the only way forward. While the Scottish Government was quick to deny there was any intention on their part, it is surely significant that the health board, and staff in private, felt that was an option to be raised.

Perhaps the fact that those closest to the front line in the NHS no longer feel able to cope should tell us that the time has come for radical thinking, but of a different kind to that outlined in the leak. For all those of us who are only able to greet each new day because of NHS staff’s efforts. Or who are able to tuck their children into bed knowing that, thanks to medical advances, they are protected from so many conditions that blighted previous generations. Or are able to enjoy the privilege of old age in good health or cared for in ways that are only possible because of that commitment to cradle-to-grave care, free at the point of delivery.

For seven decades this country has shown, and its medical profession has demonstrated, what is possible in a society with a genuine will to provide that priceless service epitomised in the NHS. Our nurses know that we have reached a crucial point in its history and we should listen to what they are telling us. The time has come to admit that we need a fundamental root-and-branch examination of what we need for the 21st century and not balk at what that might mean to the taxpayer.

It is after all the tax-payer who not only stands to benefit but who most needs a solution for their and their family’s future. I have benefitted from a life lived secure in the knowledge that medical help would be there whatever the problem, whatever the cost, without question or hesitation. We cannot let that be lost.

Christine Jardine is Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West



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