Getting an appointment with your doctor, scheduling an operation or going to the emergency room of a hospital: getting treatment has become a nightmare for many Britons, who are seeing their public health system, in crisis for years, break down.
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Yusuf Mahmud Nazir was a 5-year-old boy living with his family in the Sheffield region (north of England). On November 23, he died of pneumonia after being sent home from hospital, after several hours of waiting. According to his family, they were told there were “no beds available”.
The tragedy of this family has shaken the country and made the front page of the British media, casting a harsh light on the crisis which is shaking the public health system, the NHS, created in 1948 and long considered the jewel of British public services.
But years of underfunding, the pandemic and now record inflation are pushing its resistance, and that of its nurses, to the limit, again on strike Wednesday and Thursday to demand higher wages and improved working conditions.
Patients are seeing longer wait times to see a doctor, get treatment, have an operation, or simply have an ambulance come to their home in an emergency. The emergency services are overwhelmed, clogged with patients who have not been able to see a doctor.
More than 7 million people are currently awaiting treatment in the country, a record.
For months, the British media have been reporting the dramatic individual stories experienced by dozens of families.
Like that, in the Daily Mail, of Lesley Weekley, 73, resident of Barry in Wales who tells how she tried in vain for almost two hours to get an ambulance to come and take care of her husband by train to die of a heart attack at home.
“She is a mother who is at home, having a heart attack and not being treated because there is no ambulance to go to her house. He is a father who does not have the operation for his cancer because there is no bed available for post-operative care. She is a grandmother who dies alone because there is no nurse to hold her hand, simply because there are not enough nurses,” Orla told AFP. Dooley, a 29-year-old striking nurse, met outside Saint George’s Hospital in south London.
According to the latest figures available, the average waiting time for an ambulance has reached a record in England, exceeding 90 minutes for so-called “category 2” patients, including suspected heart attacks or strokes.
And more than 54,000 people waited more than 12 hours in December to be treated after passing through the doors of a hospital emergency department.
Martin Clark, a 68-year-old father, died in November of a heart attack. After waiting 45 minutes for an ambulance, his family took him to the hospital themselves.
“The NHS is broken. Everyone is afraid of getting sick wondering what will happen next. Things have to change,” his wife Ann told the BBC, adding that she wondered if he would still be alive if he had been taken care of more quickly.
Health experts say the crisis has been brewing for a long time, with staffing shortages and chronic underfunding under successive Conservative governments.
But the situation worsened with Brexit, as many caregivers came from the European Union, and the difficulties of replacing doctors and nurses exhausted after the pandemic and who are now leaving the sector.
NHS England must therefore fill 130,000 positions, including 12,000 doctors in hospitals and 47,000 nurses.
The Conservative government released some six billion pounds in the fall to help the NHS and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised in early January to reduce waiting lists.