Senior MPs from across parliament have accused the government of failing to come up with long-term plans to tackle growing pressures on the NHS, as emergency departments struggle to cope this winter.
Tory Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Commons health select committee, Labour's Liz Kendall, a former shadow health minister, and Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, a former care minister, spoke to BuzzFeed News to express their frustration.
Back in November, the three MPs organised a letter to the prime minister, signed by 90 MPs, urging her to launch a cross-party drive to examine ways the NHS and the social care system can be funded and safeguarded for future generations.
But so far they have had no reply from Theresa May. Wollaston, MP for Totnes, said she believes the current crisis faced by hospitals across the country is the result of a failure to consider the health and social care needs of a growing and ageing population.
"Successive governments have failed to plan for the sheer scale of rising demand for health services and social care," Wollaston said. "We need an honest discussion about how this will be funded and the costs shared fairly across generations."
On Tuesday, NHS England announced that all routine operations would be cancelled until 31 January in an effort to try to cope with pressures. An increase in severe cases of flu and respiratory conditions, as well as norovirus outbreaks, has reduced the number of beds currently available.
Social media has been flooded with reports of patients facing long waits in hospital corridors or ambulances, and one doctor writing this week compared conditions where he works to "battlefield medicine".
Wollaston added: "It’s time for politicians to work together across party lines to make it happen, because in a hung parliament this cannot be delivered in any other way.
"There is huge goodwill on the part of cross-party select committees and backbench MPs to help with this, but the resistance comes from the front benches."
Lamb, chair of the Commons science committee, said he had pressed the PM over the letter at a liaison committee hearing in December. "I specifically said to her: 'We wrote to you, we haven't had a reply yet,'" he said.
"I told her: 'You've got a choice – you can either preside over the steady deterioration of the NHS and the care system, which has untold consequences for families up and down the country, or you can take control of this and actually go down in history as the prime minister who sorts the problem out.'"
Lamb said a long-term solution was "politically difficult" because it required determining how to get more money into the system and how to prioritise resources.
He suggested one way of saving money was to stop handing out free prescriptions to wealthy over-60s such as himself.
But he said it was not just May who was blocking reform; instead he pointed to a succession of governments that had failed to take action.
"You end up with a conspiracy of silence," he continued. "Partisan politics doesn't come up with solutions.
"Part of the problem is the NHS has this sort of status as a national religion and that anybody who comes up with suggestions for how to sort the problem out can be accused of undermining our beloved NHS.
"So no one says anything and we just watch it deteriorate – that's the reality. And I think we're letting down the people of this country horribly by our failure here."
Kendall said it was "absolutely clear" that "we desperately need a long-term, sustainable funded system for both the NHS and social care".
She said that in the year of the 70th anniversary of the NHS, there would be a huge debate about its future. "We can't have a sustainable future for the NHS without agreeing a long-term funding system for social care too, because the ageing population is increasing pressure on the NHS," she said.
"I think the government has made a big mistake by just having a green paper on social care. You can't look at the two separately – they are inextricably linked."
Kendall also said a cross-party approach was vital. "Because any party that puts forward a substantial proposal for funding health and social care in future risks getting obliterated by their opponent – we saw that in the 2010 election against Labour, you saw it in the last election against the Tories' proposals."
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt later apologised to patients whose treatment would be delayed, but said he believed it better to cancel all procedures "in a planned way" rather than individually throughout the month.
"I think, in the end, [cancelling or postponing some operations] is better for people," Hunt told Sky News.
"Although if you are someone whose operation has been delayed I don't belittle that for one moment and indeed I apologise to everyone who that has happened to," he added.
Hunt noted that the NHS had received an extra £2.8 billion worth of funding in the most recent budget, although this figure fell short of what many health experts said was needed to relieve recurrent pressures on the health system.
''The NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before. We have put extra funding in," Hunt said. "There are more beds available across the system. We've reduced the number of delayed discharges of elderly people who would otherwise have been in NHS beds rather than in social care."
Speaking on LBC radio, May echoed Hunt's claim that the NHS was "better prepared for this winter than it ever has been before".
NHS Providers' head of analysis, Phillippa Hentsch, told BuzzFeed News more needed to be done to address the fact that the increase in demand for NHS services was greater than any increases in funding, a sentiment shared in comments made by the organisation's CEO, Chris Hopson.
"It’s absolutely clear that what we’re seeing is a symptom of a wider and building crisis in the NHS as opposed to anything in particular this winter. It comes down to fundamentally demand outstripping supply and available resources in the NHS," Hentsch said.
"It’s about more sustainable funding and a proper workforce plan so that we’re not in this perpetual cycle of not having sufficient resources."
While Hentsch recognised public spending overall had been squeezed since 2010, she said the entirely predictable increase in demand for health services needed to be taken into account when allocating funding to the NHS.
"We really do need to think over much longer term. It’s not just about solving the crisis one year to the next," she added. "We know what’s going to happen with demand with population increases, ageing population, sicker patients. On that basis we can make assumptions around what funding the NHS requires.
"Ultimately you can cut [NHS spending] by making some efficiencies, but investment is also required."
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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