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Is the NHS fit for purpose?
Ella Whelan talks to Emily Barley about her experience of the shocking state of maternity care ahead of their debate on the NHS at the Buxton Battle of Ideas festival.
In May 2022, Emily Barley’s daughter Beatrice died during labour. Beatrice was a full-term, healthy baby girl who should have been fine had it not been for a tragic case of medical negligence. After her loss, Emily, a former Conservative activist and public-affairs consultant, became a campaigner for maternity safety, making others aware of her loss in a bid to open up a discussion about NHS failings, and the worrying state of maternity care.
Sadly, Emily is not the only heartbroken mother. The situation for women giving birth is, indeed, dire. Yesterday, the Care Quality Commission told the BBC that England’s maternity units had ‘the poorest safety ratings of any hospital service it inspects’. Two thirds of units - 67 per cent - were deemed ‘not safe enough’, a figure which had increased from 55 per cent last autumn. Too many babies and mothers have been harmed, or died, due to failings in NHS care. The question is, how can giving birth be so dangerous in a relatively wealthy country like England? What do the maternity scandals, from the Ockenden report to the latest CQC figures, tell us about the state of the NHS? And could there be more to this than funding and staffing issues?
Ahead of our debate Is the NHS fit for purpose? at the Buxton Battle of Ideas on Saturday 25 November, Ella Whelan spoke to Emily about Beatrice, and what she thinks needs to change to save more families from the heartache she suffered.
This debate is part of Buxton Battle of Ideas festival. For further details and tickets, click here.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK in March 2020, the NHS has been under incredible strain. While staff coped magnificently with the pressures, the diversion of resources, restrictions on capacity due to infection control, and staff forced to stay at home due to sickness and self-isolation rules has led to a backlog building up of other untreated patients.
Figures for July 2023, published in September, show that 7.68million people were waiting to start treatment. These delays could lead to people suffering unnecessarily, and many people will die because opportunities to catch health problems early have been missed. The number of people turning to the private sector for treatment has increased dramatically.
Yet problems with the NHS are not new. Almost every year there is a crisis during winter as a variety of pressures combine to stretch healthcare resources. Long waiting lists for treatment seem ever present. While reports for the Commonwealth Fund have frequently suggested the NHS is one of the top health services in the world, when it comes to patient outcomes, the NHS lags behind most other wealthy economies. Moreover, the UK population is ageing, leading to ever-greater demands over time – particularly when it comes to social care.
The NHS has also had to face a variety of scandals over the years – from Bristol to Stafford and beyond – where poor-quality care has led to patient deaths. A recent report into a maternity scandal in the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS trust revealed hundreds of mothers and babies had been harmed over decades of mistreatment – including multiple deaths. Since then, other trusts have been investigated, with many deemed unfit to safely care for women giving birth.
But the biggest story recently has been the conviction of a paediatric nurse, Lucy Letby, for murdering babies in the intensive care unit where she worked. Many have been shocked, not only by the killings themselves, but by the way hospital managers dismissed the concerns of consultants at the hospital.
Is it time to look again at the way we organise healthcare? The UK is relatively unusual among wealthier nations in having a health service that is mostly financed and provided by the state. Is this near-monopoly of provision a strength or a weakness? Moreover, the NHS has been subject to multiple reorganisations over the years, with a panoply of oversight boards, commissioning groups, health authorities and other bodies now overseeing different aspects of the system. For some critics, the pandemic has simply highlighted the diffusion of responsibility between different parts of the NHS, leading to an inability to hold any part of the system accountable for its failings.
How can we solve the problems of the NHS? Is it simply a matter of providing extra resources – for example, giving striking workers the pay increases they demand – or is the way resources are used within the NHS a problem, too? Do we expect too much from the NHS? And with some observers likening it to a national religion, are politicians brave enough to have a proper debate about reform?
Emily Barley: Maternity safety campaigner
Nicky Drury: genetic counsellor, Nottingham Department of Clinical Genetics; former member, United Kingdom Human Genetics Commission
Susie Hawkes: senior lecturer in social work, University of Wolverhampton
Rob Lyons: science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, AoI Economy Forum
Chair - Ella Whelan: co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want
Dates for your diary…
Liverpool Salon: Join Michael Owens (researcher, writer and lecturer; author Play the Game: How the Olympics came to East London), John Boughton (social historian, blogger; author Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing) and Ronnie Hughes (walker, reader and writer of the Liverpool blog A Sense of Place, currently titled Seventy) to take a historical perspective on Britain’s current housing crisis:
When: Saturday 18 November 2023 / 12pm
Where: The Athenaeum, Church Alley, Liverpool
Birmingham Salon: Join us for this Battle of Ideas Festival 2023 Satellite Event with Birmingham Salon organiser and regular Chris Akers introducing his newly released Letter on Liberty about boxing.
When: Saturday 18 November / 1pm - 3pm
Where: Map Room, Cherry Reds, 88-92 John Bright Street, B1 1BN
Cancelling Cancel Culture Manchester is a Meetup group for those worn out by ‘wokeness’ and the rapid rise of a new anti-scientific and anti-common sense orthodoxy. Their next Meetup is entitled:
When: Sunday 19 November 2023 / 2pm
Where: The Briton's Protection, 50 Great Bridgewater Street, Manchester.
Living Freedom offers opportunities for younger generations to explore ideas and debate ideals as they relate to the past, present and future of freedom. Their ‘What can we learn from…?’ events take as their starting point important thinkers and cultural figures from the past. They offer an opportunity to understand the emergence of key ideals related to freedom and to explore and debate if and how they remain important in the present.
When: Wednesday 22 November / 6pm - 7:30pm
Where: Vinson Auditorium, Vinson Centre, 21 Hunter Street, Buckingham, MK18 1EG
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