Chronic neglect of the NHS and flawed Government policy contributed to the harrowing death toll of COVID-19, says BMA

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA.

Location: UK
Published: Monday 13 September 2021
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Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA Chair of Council, will say, in a speech today, that chronic neglect of the NHS before the pandemic as well as a lack of preparedness and flawed Government thinking, contributed to the excessive and tragic impact of the pandemic on the health of the nation and on the death toll. He will also say that we must not accept a return to the old days of a health service in perpetual crisis.  

In his address to the BMA’s Annual Representative Meeting (ARM), Dr Nagpaul will argue that all parts of the NHS had been starved, with insufficient hospital and community facilities and almost 90,000 staff vacancies even before the pandemic struck. It was an NHS, already in crisis, with waiting lists at an all-time high and record waits for cancer treatment. To create capacity for COVID patients, other services shut down for months resulting in millions suffering.

Dr Nagpaul will talk about the huge inconsistencies in Westminster Government’s decision making throughout the pandemic. He will say that the decision to abandon all restrictions on 'Freedom Day' was a "gamble" that has contributed to almost 40,000 hospitalisations and over 4,000 deaths since July 19th alone. That the Government mantra of 'living with COVID' belies the daily reality of thousands who are seriously ill including those dying from COVID-19.

His speech will highlight that the UK has endured the horror of more than 130,000 people dying from COVID-19 since the pandemic began – far higher than many similar nations – not forgetting the 12,000 excess non-COVID deaths last year.  The BMA believes that families and the public deserve answers.

Dr Nagpaul will point out that whilst over a year ago the BMA called for a rapid inquiry so that lessons could be learned before a second wave, the call was dismissed by Government ministers. This meant that when the country plunged headlong into another wave of illness, hospitalisations and deaths, pushing the NHS to the brink of collapse, we hadn't learned what could have been vital lessons from the previous six months.

In his speech, Dr Nagpaul will say:

"We will not accept a return the old pre-pandemic NHS, which was so patently under-staffed and under-resourced, where 9 in 10 doctors are afraid of medical errors daily. We will not accept an NHS running at unsafe bed occupancy and without spare capacity.

"We will not accept an NHS unprepared for a pandemic, without vital PPE to protect the health and lives of health and care workers.

"We will not accept an NHS in crisis every summer, let alone every winter. We will not accept a nation bereft of public health staff, facilities and testing capacity, with ministers then paying billions to private companies who were unable to deliver."

On the recent announcement of additional funding for the NHS and social care, he will say it is an important first step but there needs to be honesty about how far this money will stretch, with realistic projections of the timescales for addressing the backlog, and the recognition that this will not resolve the major limiting factor of desperate workforce shortages with the NHS having an estimated 50,000 fewer doctors compared to EU averages.

Dr Nagpaul will also acknowledge the incredible efforts of all those involved in putting millions of vaccine jabs into the arms of the nation - including the GP-led community vaccination programme – negotiated by the BMA – which has been the most successful in the UK’s history.

He will say that the country and its medical workforce has never faced a crisis like this before and Government must act now so the nation is far better prepared to respond to future pandemics, save lives and protect the NHS.


Notes to editors

  • In the 10 years between 2009/10 to 2018/19, the NHS received 1.4% compared to the 3.7 per cent average rises since the NHS was established, despite greater patient demand and an aging population.
  • 24 million people were already on the waiting list in England in March 2020 – today we now have 5.61 million on waiting list, with modelling suggesting this could rise to 13 million.
  • Prior to the pandemic, bed occupancy was already regularly above the safe thresholds (safe is considered below 85%).
  • We had insufficient critical care beds (the UK had 7.3 critical care beds per 100k people compared to Germany’s 33.8).
  • Inadequate stockpiles PPE to protect frontline staff which resulted in last minute procurements with some supplies unsafe or unusable.
  • PHE’s operational budget was cut by £5 million in the immediate years before the pandemic.
  • 22% real terms cut to the public health grant between 2015/16 and 2020/21.
  • 18 week wait – in February 2020, nearly 750,000 patients were waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment, meaning that 20.3% of people were waiting more than 18 weeks from referral and first treatment.
    • In July 2021 there were approximately 1.8m people waiting for more than 18 weeks; with 31.7% waiting more than 18 weeks from referral and first treatment.
  • 52 week wait – in February 2020, around 1600 patients were waiting more than 52 weeks for treatment; according to NHS statistics, this meant that 0% of people were waiting more than 52 weeks from referral and first treatment.
    • In July 2021 there were approximately 293,102 people waiting for more than a year; meaning 5.2% of people on waiting lists now wait for over a year.
  • A&E waiting – in February 2020, 82.8% of patients were seen within 4 hours or less.
    • In August 2021, 77% were seen within 4 hours or less.

The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.