Jeremy Hunt visits Marlborough but not Great Western Hospital

Written by Tony Millett on .

Jeremy Hunt interviewd by BBC Health Editor Hugh Pym (Photo from BBC TV transmission)Jeremy Hunt interviewd by BBC Health Editor Hugh Pym (Photo from BBC TV transmission)Friday (February 10) was the day the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, rounded off a week of terrible NHS headlines, a series of revelatory reports on BBC TV News and on other media, with an interview by the BBC's health editor Hugh Pym.

After it was first broadcast, he was expected to visit two hospitals in the south west.  On Friday afternoon he was to visit Great Western Hospital.

His visit to the region came after revelations during the week about the long waits people are having to endure in emergency departments, waiting for elective surgery and, once they are well again, waiting to leave hospital with the appropriate care.  

In his interview, Mr Hunt called the NHS' problems 'completely unacceptable' and said there was 'no excuse' for some of the difficulties highlighted by the BBC and other media investigations.

He says there is 'no silver bullet', but that he has a plan to ease the pressures - this seems to be treating more people at home and in the community.  Many parts of the NHS - including the Wiltshire Clinical Commissioning Group - have been aiming to do this for the past four years.

The media were not invited to see his visit to GWH.  This was probably just as well, as the visit was cancelled.

It would, however, have been a chance for Mr Hunt to see the hospital whose size has simply not kept up with the huge growth in Swindon's population.  And the town is still growing with another 20,000 residents expected over the next five to ten years.

For some periods over recent months, GWH has been running with bed occupation at over 100 per cent - that means extra beds have had to be brought into operation and nurses found to staff them.  

Is GWH really too small?  The generally accepted 'safe level' for bed occupancy is 85 per cent.  And GWH are certainly not alone in running recently with far greater occupancy than that 'safe level'.  It is, however, clear that the number of beds at GWH is not the sole cause of the prtoblems it is experiencing with waiting times in its emergency department.

The GWH's Chief Executive has said that the size of GWH cannot be increased just by using Section 106 or Community Infrastructure Levy money paid by the town's housing developers.  It will simply not be enough.   

There must be other funding - from central infrastructure sources.  And GWH executives have been talking to Swindon CCG, Swindon Council and to local MPs to begin the process of making a national bid for capital funding.

Hospital executives have said that improvements are also needed to social care and to GP and community services in Swindon

Now Sir Robert Francis QC, who investigated the dreadful NHS failings in Mid Staffordshire, has said the NHS is facing an 'existential crisis'.  This might be a wake-up call to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  

BBC Chart using data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Click to enlarge)BBC Chart using data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Click to enlarge)In the past Conservative MPs have used the Mid Staffs disaster to discredit the Labour government's stewardship of the NHS.  They should be very worried that Sir Robert, who has till now been very quiet on the crisis in NHS staffing levels, has decided to speak out.

The Government replies to current criticisms of its funding of the NHS by quoting the sums of money it has provided - both annual and 'extra'.  And no doubt Mr Hunt will have repeated this response when he met local Conservatives at a Devizes constituency party dinner in Marlborough on Friday evening.

The BBC has provided a series of ten charts to show why the NHS is in such trouble.  The chart on funding tells an interesting story.  Using figures supplied by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, it shows how annual increases have declined with the start of the coalition government in 2010.  

So ministers are right to say funding has increased, but the increases have been significantly smaller than under previous governments.  

Annual increases have patently not kept up with NHS's own brand of inflation which is governed by, among other factors, welcome advances in medical science, drugs and technology, by the growing and ageing population - and also by patients' expectations.

However, those figures for average annual increases do not take into account the money the Treasury has been clawing back from the NHS in terms of changed pension payments, training costs and rents on buildings that are now being transferred to a company which is charging commercial rents and may soon be privatised.