LONDON (Sputnik) - The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is likely to struggle with managing the surge in patients who will test positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), given that the institution has suffered during a decade of austerity characterized by overcapacity, staff shortages, and government inaction, co-chair of the Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) non-profit organization Dr John Puntis said on Friday.
"The NHS is not in such a good position as it could have been, so one would say over the last ten years it's been hit by austerity and there are some very clear indications of that in terms of there being 17,000 fewer hospital beds, 100,000 staff vacancies and 40,000 fewer nurses. There hasn't been the investment there should have been," Puntis said.
The KONP co-chair went on to argue that staff within the health service had become increasingly anxious about their own vulnerability to COVID-19, claiming there was an immediate need to ensure that health sector workers receive protective clothing. If that was not done, he said, the already evident strain on the NHS would only get worse, ultimately compounding the issue as the UK struggles to deal with the outbreak.
"The NHS, before the virus even, all the performance figures show deterioration in terms of A&E [Accident and Emergency] targets, waiting lists, trolley waits in A&E … they all get worse, and that reflects the relatively poor state of affairs. Staff are panicking about risk because of inadequate provision of protective clothing. If we don't protect front line health workers, including ambulance staff and paramedics, if they get sick that compounds the strain on the service very considerably," Puntis stated.
Previous government proposals to pay private manufacturers to construct additional ventilators for intensive care units were also questioned, given it would necessarily involve companies employing staff and resources that had previously not been used to produce medical equipment.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson had claimed earlier this week that the prime minister would be speaking to British manufacturers about the possibility of creating additional ventilators for the NHS, with Honda and Vauxhall having allegedly been asked to help.
Such policies would not necessarily be as simple as they appear, Puntis claimed, especially as the NHS was already undermanned in terms of properly trained staff with experience in operating the kind of equipment now needed.
"Getting more ventilators is only part of the solution. The flippant remark is that we get more ventilators and train doctors on how to use them ... this is the point where you need properly trained nursing staff. Although they have put the invitation out to manufacturing to switch to producing ventilators, it's been pointed out that medical equipment has to be made to very high standards so it's not necessarily that simple," he argued.
The NHS also faces severe overcapacity issues, evident after a letter from NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens was made public on Tuesday. Stevens called on hospitals to cancel all non-urgent surgeries for three months from April 15, in order to free up approximately 30,000 beds for potential COVID-19 patients.
"The other thing is that bed occupancy in the NHS has been running at over 95 percent and normally intensive care is pretty full too, so it's not like there's a lot of empty space just waiting for patients to come in," Puntis stated.
The NHS, itself always a hot topic at election time, has come under ever-increasing scrutiny following the emergence of the coronavirus disease in the UK. Campaigners and opposition politicians have persistently criticized the government over what they see as a persistent inability to handle the UK's health needs, a point demonstrated by a glaring bed shortage that has already seen the loss of some 17,000 hospital beds ever since the Conservative Party regained office in 2010.
Such capacity issues alongside a reduction in staffing levels would appear to indicate that the UK remains ill-equipped to deal with COVID-19 in the event it continues to spread, a sentiment shared by Puntis who stated that the current situation in the UK was already a crisis.
"Everyone accepts we're now in a crisis because of this new disease that's quite a lot more virulent than seasonal influenza. It's much bigger than that. It's already having an extraordinary, devastating effect on public life," the non-profit co-chair stated.
As of Thursday, a total of 137 people are believed to have died after contracting COVID-19 in the UK, with the government rushing to fast track emergency legislation to contain any further spread, including measures to close schools, grant police additional powers to detain those suspected of carrying the disease and restrict or outright ban public gatherings.