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George: Tackling health crisis should be 2022 priority

Created on 21/12/2021 @ 11:49

Montgomeryshire Member of the Senedd Russell George shares his thoughts for the New Year and what Wales needs to place as its priority. 

“With the new year ahead of us, I think it appropriate to look back at the challenges of the last 12 months, and how to use the next 12 to solve them in regards to our health service in Wales.

I want to start with a similar message that we all had in 2020: our NHS staff are some of the hardest working people in our society and their resilience throughout the pandemic has been admirable. Not only have they had to look after Covid patients, but they have also had to deal with the unintended consequences of lockdown.

It is truly astonishing to think that one-in-five people in Wales are on an NHS treatment waiting list. It increased by 11,000 in September alone. A quarter of those on the list are waiting over a year. Meanwhile, it’s only 1-in-19 in England, and median waiting times for that same month in Wales are nearly double that of England.

It doesn’t help that NHS staff are suffering burnout from how hard they are having to work in the context of an already hugely understaffed health service. No matter how many times Mark Drakeford says there is a record number of people working in the NHS, there are 3,000 vacancies.

That means people are not being seen quick enough in A&E – overpopulated due to problems like accessing primary care services such as GPs – leading to delays in transferring patients from ambulances to hospital, meaning calls are taking longer to respond to, exacerbating conditions that may then need elective treatment.Montgomeryshire Member of the Senedd Russell George shares his thoughts for the New Year and what Wales needs to place as its priority.

This has left the NHS in a perilous state, experiencing its worst A&E waits, longest ever treatment waiting lists, and slowest ambulance response times on record. This is all in addition to year-on-year reduction to NHS beds during devolution, with the Welsh Government in Cardiff Bay cutting them by 30% over 22 years.

We must be vigilant not to let ministers off the hook because they blame the pandemic but sometimes, the pandemic is not to blame. While the treatment backlog is much higher than it was before Covid struck, it had doubled in the year before.

We also saw the annual number of serious adverse incidents in ambulances nearly double five years ago and never go back down. The year before coronavirus also saw the Welsh Government beat its worst A&E waits record on multiple occasions.

The Welsh NHS is not the new normal – it is simply normal. And totally unacceptable. We have got to do better. Change now is not only a matter life and death for patients, but the NHS itself. But how do we do that?

First, the existence and locations of other services like minor injury units and community pharmacists need to be promoted far more widely so people are encouraged to use them. It is better for patients too – would you prefer waiting hours in an uncomfortable A&E waiting room or get an appointment to see a medical professional in good time?

Second, is implementing our long-term calls for regional surgical hubs where people on a waiting list can get their treatment sorted closer to home, in a “Covid-light” environment. It takes pressures off hospital and deals with what is becoming an unsustainable problem. We also need rapid diagnostic centres to spot cancers earlier.

The number of people entering hospitals in Wales for cancer treatment had fallen by over 40,000 in the first year of the pandemic. Nearly 60,000 breast cancer screenings have been missed because of the pandemic with a charity predicting almost 620 women are living with undiagnosed breast cancer. These are the kinds off facts that should put off any policymaker from lockdowns as a functional public health tool when its consequences are so dire.

Thirdly, we need to make GP services far easier to access. GPs do skilled work over long hours in difficult, often lonely, settings and deserve to be praised, not demonised. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the surgery set-up sometimes simply does not work for the patients they are paid to serve. Later in January, I am going to launch my ideas for a GP access plan, with concrete and funded proposals that I hope  the Health Minister will seriously consider.

And there is also my own party’s ideas for a Covid action plan: appoint a vaccines minister; rapidly rollout booster jab walk-in centres and reopen closed mass vaccination centres; reactivate the NHS Covid ‘volunteer army’; establish regional surgical hubs to tackle the backlog; commit to keeping schools open; and commit to easing restrictions if Omicron proves no more dangerous than Delta.

Since making these calls, some of my calls have been implemented.

The procurement and rollout of the vaccine is the great success of 2021, so let’s ensure we keep our hard-earned success by ramping up the booster programme. We know vaccinations are the key to a society living with coronavirus, so it’s vital we do this to prevent restrictions. It’s essential that we get evidence to justify restrictions rather than use the absence of evidence to make decisions, like with vaccine passports. This is vital to making the health service function properly.

My hope for 2022 is for a dramatic transformation in the fortunes of NHS staff and patients, and that this is achieved through our sensible and workable recommendations. Together we can come through this."

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