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NHS: Beloved but beleaguered at 70

NHS: Beloved but beleaguered at 70
From Al Jazeera - January 4, 2018

When planning the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games, director Danny Boyle was tasked with choosing themes that would best sum up the United Kingdom.

Some were obvious: the Queen, the Beatles, James Bond, but others less so, at least from outside.

A chain of nurses encircling the main stage, bustling around children who jumped up and down on their hospital beds symbolised the country's National Health Service (NHS).

While the Olympics might have seemed a strange place to celebrate a government body, a national poll conducted at the 2012 games ranked the NHS as the institution that made people "most proud to be British".

In the 70 years since its founding, the NHS, with its core value of free healthcare for all at the point of delivery, has become not only an intrinsic part of British life, but also an inspiration around the world.

But, as it struggles to cope with funding cuts and an ageing population, the future of the service, and its international reputation is uncertain.

Winters of discontent

On Wednesday, NHS England took the unprecedented step of suspending all non-urgent procedures until the end of January.

The move is designed to free up staff and beds to deal with emergency patients and is expected to affect around 55,000 operations such as cataracts and hip replacements.

British Prime Minister Theresa May apologised to patients whose operations had been postponed while visiting a hospital on Thursday.

"I know it is difficult, I know it is frustrating, I know its disappointing for people and I apologise," she said.

Healthcare staff are always under pressure in January as cold weather, flu and higher levels of respiratory illnesses put hospitals under strain.

"The NHS is currently experiencing serious challenges due to peaks in demand that occur during the winter period," said Andrew Seaton, a historian of the NHS at New York University.

"This has become somewhat of an annual event, though this year looks particularly serious as 21 NHS Trusts have declared a 'black alert', meaning they can no longer guarantee patient safety, nor run a full range of services," he told Al Jazeera.

This winter has seen reports of individuals waiting 12 hours to see a doctor and patients being treated in corridors.

New data released by NHS England on Thursday showed a 95 percent rise in the number of patients stuck in ambulances for at least an hour during the week of December 25-31- with 4,700 cases up from 2,400 the week before.

Department of Health guidelines say ambulance crews should be able to hand patients over to hospital staff within 15 minutes of arrival.

Underfunded and under stress

Insufficient funding by successive governments, creeping privatisation and an ageing population have combined to create a difficult situation for the British healthcare system and those who work in it.

"The population we care for has changed," said Dr Rashed Akhtar, a general practitioner who works between the NHS and private care.

We cannot find GPs to fill vacant spots.

Dr Aisha Awan

"We have an ageing population living longer with more complex diseases. Something like dementia, which you can survive a long time with, is still an illness that is very demanding to care for and something I do not think as a society we have got to grips with," he told Al Jazeera.

"The resources for the NHS have not matched the needs of the population."

Staffing shortages are exacerbating the situation, placing additional strain on healthcare providers.

"We cannot find GPs to fill vacant spots," Dr Aisha Awan, a Manchester-based GP told Al Jazeera.

By limiting migration, the medical profession is likely to suffer and people are likely to suffer.

A national religion

[The NHS] is there at our most vulnerable times: it's there when we are born, it's there when we die, when our children are born and when our loved ones are sick.

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