Waiting hours and hours for emergency treatment can hasten the deaths of sick people.
This seems like a statement of the bleeding obvious. Yet it’s still shocking to see it in print, thanks to a study by two A&E consultants trying to establish how many people might have survived had they not spent over six hours in overwhelmed casualty departments waiting for beds. (The answer, reportedly, is up to 5,500 over three years.) Sometimes even the obvious needs stating with force. It has taken until the last few days of a generally flat and lacklustre election campaign, but thanks to the mother of a four-year-old with suspected pneumonia left curled up on some coats on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary, there is at least a chance of cutting to the chase.
Well before the election was called, it was clear senior Tories were worried about a winter campaign colliding with a winter crisis in the NHS. Boris Johnson’s floundering encounter with the distressed father of a sick baby at Whipps Cross hospital in September was a warning not only of how bad things are on the wards, but also of Johnson’s curious inability to cope with real human beings in distress.
Then, too, he reacted bizarrely, insisting that there were no press around while standing beside a BBC crew. He can’t have expected to get away with that, any more than he can have expected to get away with pocketing the phone of an ITV reporter trying to show him pictures of Jack Williment-Barr in an oxygen mask. Both can be explained only as the results of a temporary brain freeze, from a man who either genuinely doesn’t know what to say in situations like this or has been ordered to talk only about Brexit.
It was left to his health secretary, Matt Hancock, to illustrate how to do it, by making no attempt to duck questions about Jack and citing his own experiences of A&E as a parent. But what voters will remember is Daily Mirror splashes about sick babies lying on chairs for lack of a bed, and desperate waffling in response – not just from Johnson, but from Tories who should know better circulating wild conspiracy theories about how the Leeds picture could have been faked, even though the hospital has already apologised for what happened.
This is the first time the Tories have looked properly rattled. And their response, with what looks like a deliberate attempt at distraction – some non-story about Hancock’s special adviser accidentally colliding with a protester’s arm, a vague threat to the BBC – only increases the impression of jitteriness. But is the issue sputtering to life too late to make much difference?
What’s puzzling, in retrospect, is that Labour hasn’t focused harder and earlier on a crisis unfurling under voters’ noses. Chants of “NHS not for sale” have been this year’s “oh Jeremy Corbyn”, an anti-privatisation rallying cry heard everywhere the leader goes.
But while the prospect of the private sector potentially sneaking in via the back door at future Brexit trade talks clearly motivates the faithful, I suspect it leaves many of the voters Labour needs cold. People who can’t get a GP appointment, have had an operation cancelled or been told an ambulance can’t come for an hour are angry about precisely that, not about some complex, technical future threat which might not happen.
And while talking about private sector involvement in the NHS can be divisive – some voters hate the idea, others are pragmatic about who provides services so long as they’re free at the point of use – the idea that the NHS needs more money and staff unites voters across party boundaries and the Brexit divide. Four out of five voters now think the NHS is understaffed and its personnel overworked, according to pollsters IpsosMori. The NHS is one of the few issues making angry Labour leavers think twice about turning Tory. Labour needs to bring the real and human consequences of what’s happening alive if it’s to have any hope of narrowing the gap by Thursday.
There is, rightly, a wariness about thrusting individual sick children into a political storm. (Jack’s mother, doubtless overwhelmed by reporters since originally contacting her local paper the Yorkshire Post, has now appealed for privacy.) But there are other ways of doing it.
I’ve never forgotten a story a Labour cabinet minister once told me. Ahead of the 1997 election, she met a cardiac specialist who pushed a long waiting list for surgery across the desk. Below a certain point, the consultant said despairingly, were the patients who would probably die of their conditions before he could reach them. Among those unlikely to be saved, she saw the details of some of her own constituents – people doubtless with families and friends who loved them.
It’s memories like this that drove Labour in power to reduce waiting times, enforce strict targets for A&E waits and accessing cancer treatment, make the leaps forward that are now sliding helplessly into reverse. People lived, as a result of those decisions. Sometimes there’s much to be said for stating the bleeding obvious.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist