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Government Accused Of Wilful Denial Over The Scale Of NHS Winter Crisis

"On behalf of patients, their families, and NHS staff, please get a grip," shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the House of Commons.

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Jeremy Hunt
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Jeremy Hunt

The government has been accused of being in denial after prime minister Theresa May and health secretary Jeremy Hunt were both forced to defend NHS performance amid a huge crisis in the health service.

Accident and emergency departments have this year seen a surge in demand, leading to record waiting times and reports of patients dying in hospital corridors.

On Sunday May rejected the British Red Cross's claim of a "humanitarian crisis" in the NHS. The charity said its volunteers had been helping people get discharged from overcrowded A&E units.

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused May of allowing Hunt to "fiddle the figures" by redefining the four-hour A&E waiting time target to apply only to patients with life-threatening conditions, and asked if she believed this was the best way to address the crisis.

Despite leaked documents from NHS Improvement showing more than 18,000 people were left waiting on trolleys in A&E for longer than four hours last week, 485 of whom waited for more than 12 hours, May preferred to focus on the fact that 2.5 million people were treated in the NHS last year.

"There are always extra pressures on the NHS during the winter, but of course we have at the moment those added pressure of the ageing population and the growing complex needs of the population," May said.

In what could be an explosive HoC testimony, Simon Stevens, #NHS chief says: "It doesn't help anybody to pretend there aren't finance gaps"

But Corbyn joined a chorus of voices from the medical community who have said the current crisis is due to far more than an increase in population, and is instead a result of a lack of hospital beds, inadequate social care, staff shortages, and cuts to the NHS overall.

"The Royal College of Nursing has said NHS conditions are the worst ever," he told parliament. "Royal College of Physicians has told the prime minister the NHS is underfunded, under-doctored, and overstretched. If she won’t listen to the Red Cross, who will she listen to?"

Earlier on Wednesday, representatives of the Royal College of Physicians wrote an open letter to May to highlight the issues resulting from the gulf between funding and demand within the NHS.

"This increase in patient need – as our fellow citizens live longer, with more complex conditions – is outpacing the resources we have to care for them safely," the letter read.

Meanwhile, Chris Hopson, CEO of NHS Providers, told the Commons public accounts committee the organisation did not believe "the NHS has got all the money it needs to deliver what it's being asked to".

'No we don't believe the NHS has got all the money it needs to deliver what its being asked to' - Chris Hopson tells @CommonsPAC

Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England, the body with overall responsibility for the country's hospitals, also told the committee of a hole in the health services finances. "We got less than we asked for and [the government is] stretching it to claim the NHS got more," Stevens said.

At PMQs, Corbyn said May seemed "to be in some degree of denial about this and won’t listen to professional organisations who’ve spent their whole lifetime doing
their best for the NHS".

Chair of the British Medical Association Dr Mark Porter said the government was "wilfully ignoring the scale of the crisis in our NHS".

Porter said the playing down of the pressure faced by A&E "shows the prime minister is out of touch with patients and front-line staff who are working flat out under impossible circumstances".

At individual hospital trusts, it has been suggested that senior staff are under political pressure to downplay the extent of issues A&E departments are facing.

A transcript for BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme showed its reporter was told by a senior clinician at a hospital in the north of England that the chief executive had "been given instructions that Theresa May, the prime minister, did not want any of this to get out" when asked why they had not gone to the press over excessive A&E waiting times.

The Department of Health refused to comment on the allegation.

Other NHS figures, who did not wish to be named, told BuzzFeed News they believed this was likely to be the case at several trusts.

"Theresa May, the Prime Minister, didn't want any of this to get out". Truly horrifying govt coverup over…

Dr Ben White, a junior doctor from London, told us he believed that ignoring warnings from doctors about the state of A&E departments right now could lead to a similar crisis to that at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust, which faced serious patient safety issues in 2009.

"Jeremy Hunt has been known in the past to personally call CEOs of Trusts who fail specific targets. It is not a stretch of the imagination that government at the highest level are instructing CEOs not to go to the press," White said.

"The culture of cover-up is exactly what created the lack of care that Robert Francis QC investigated [at Mid Staffordshire].

"I worry that is exactly what we are seeing now on a nationwide scale."

Following Francis's investigation, then prime minister David Cameron said one of "the most disturbing findings" was that hospital managers had been "suppressing inconvenient facts" as the crisis unfolded at Mid Staffordshire.

"This scandal has been brewing for many years," White added. "You cannot systemically underfund and understaff a health system increasingly in demand and expect there to be no repercussions."

At an opposition debate following PMQs, Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth also accused government ministers of "burying their heads in the sand" over the current NHS crisis.

After Hunt, who also attended the debate, defended his decision to redefine the four-hour waiting time target and echoed May's positive appraisal of NHS performance, Ashworth urged Hunt to take more responsibility for the crisis.

"It’s time the health secretary started pointing the finger at himself and not everybody else," Ashworth said.

"The NHS is in crisis, ministers are in denial. I say to the government, on behalf of patients, their families, on behalf of NHS staff, please get a grip."

Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

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