Winter will soon be upon us, and with it a period during which NHS staff will face increased pressure and demand on services – that is on top of the distressed baseline service they are already working in.
While seasonal illnesses do affect the health service, chronic staffing shortages, underfunding and a lack of resources have, in reality, made it increasingly difficult to distinguish ‘winter pressures’ from those experienced throughout the rest of the year.
Doctors and other healthcare professionals know, however, that this winter is likely to be exceptionally tough, for a number of reasons.
It hardly needs saying the NHS is still recovering from COVID-19, a crisis which stretched and tested the healthcare workforce to breaking point, and which greatly exacerbated a backlog in unmet patient care.
Indeed, the number of patients waiting for consultant-led elective care services rose from an already daunting figure of 4.4m at the start of the pandemic, to 7.7m recorded in July this year just in England alone.
Meanwhile the health service is desperately contending with a workforce shortfall, estimated at around 150,000 full-time equivalent staff.
Improving recruitment and retention rates of all staff is clearly essential if we are to prevent this black hole in staffing from expanding let alone improving.
NHS England’s Government-approved Long Term Workforce Plan launched in June this year was meant to allay fears and address the crisis, yet analysis by the BMA has concluded the plan ‘is silent’ when it comes to elaborating on how it will retain staff, by addressing doctors’ and others’ demands regarding pay and workplace terms and conditions.
There was a clear consensus at this year’s BMA annual representative meeting that the plan is not fit for purpose and, as doctors, we cannot afford to be dependent on a strategy we know is set to fail.
The failure to understand and adequately address the needs of the NHS and its staff are in large part the catalyst which has this year seen doctors (junior) and their consultant colleagues take the difficult decision to engage in independent and joint industrial action.
I know full well how painful the decision to strike has been for our profession, with tens of thousands of you having bravely sustained your action over many months in the face of an obstinate Government and often hostile national press. On top of this, specialist, associate specialist and specialty doctors in England are conducting an indicative ballot on strike action, which could ultimately see them joining their doctor and consultant colleagues on picket lines up and down the country.
Fortunately, the majority of our patients recognise our cause and continue to support our struggle, knowing the crisis in their NHS is not the result of doctors’ striking, but the culmination of persistent underinvestment in funding, resources and staffing for the NHS.
This was evidenced by a BMA poll released this month which showed 42 per cent of the public placing blame for the rising waiting lists for elective treatment on the Government.
While the Government has the power to end these strikes by coming to the negotiating table, we owe it to those colleagues we have lost, and to those we could gain in the future, to do absolutely everything within our capability to ensure our workforce is valued.
At such a time, looking out for each other and for our own health has never been more important.
I want to stress that the BMA is here to support you however we can through our 24/7 counselling helpline which can be reached on 0330 123 1245 – open to all medical students, doctors and their dependants regardless of membership status.
The issue of support is something which also comes to mind in light of extremely disturbing recent findings concerning sexual harassment and violence in the NHS by the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery – one in a series of many raising the same concern.
A study published last month by the University of Surrey and Exeter University reveals almost a third of female surgeons reported they had been sexually assaulted by a colleague, with two thirds having faced sexual harassment in the workplace.
These shocking revelations follow those of the BMJ’s Me Too investigation earlier this year which uncovered more than 35,000 cases of rape, sexual assault, harassment, stalking, and abusive remarks recorded at NHS trusts between 2017 and 2022.
I and my colleagues at your BMA know full well how much work is still needed in the struggle to confront and eradicate sexism and sexual abuse in the health service, with the BMA having published the results of its Sexism in Medicine survey in 2021.
I want to thank all the women who bravely raised their voices to highlight this abuse, and I encourage any member who has been affected or is concerned by these issues to get in touch.
If you would like to learn more about how you can get involved with your BMA, please write to me at [email protected] or @DrLatifaPatel
Dr Latifa Patel is chair of the BMA representative body