Austerity in essential public services is deadly. Grenfell demonstrates it. The NHS exemplifies it.

“I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either..”
Socrates 

Apology by Plato

The events of the last week will undoubtedly shape the future of Britain in a monumental fashion. First, an election like none we have seen for fifty years. Called in hubris, led to nemesis, won, in truth, by no one. History-making nonetheless. The prevailing wind of politics has changed, now blowing Left of centre for the first time in nearly a decade. Corbyn has an approval rating of +6, Theresa May a disapproval rating of -34, nearly mirror opposites of where they stood in November. Who knew?

Theresa May and the Conservatives struck a conciliatory tone. “Austerity is over” they said, in radio interviews, in leaked excerpts from backbencher committee meetings. The “mood has changed” they said.

And then Grenfell Tower happened. And the mood changed again.

As details drip out of what will undoubtedly be known as the biggest domestic disaster since Hillsborough, a hazy but consistent picture coalesces. The fire began reportedly in a fourth floor flat, starting with a fridge. The residents had campaigned for years before about power surges in the building, about the risk of a lethal fire with appliances, but sadly, were ignored. Within minutes, it is reported, the fire had spread out of a window and roared up the side of the tower, consuming the external cladding system as one resident described “like matchsticks”. This external cladding had been part of a recent £8.7 million refurbishment, subcontracted by the private enterprise managing the tower, KCTMO, to update the insulation and aesthetic aspects of the outer structure. In the Times today, it is reported that the cladding material used is illegal in structures greater than 18 metres, is flammable when an alternative fire resistant material would’ve cost just £5000 more, and is illegal in Germany and the USA. Sky News’ Faisal Islam shared a BRE presentation this weekend, a diagram of exactly the kind of disaster that befell Grenfell, dated June 2014, three years ago exactly. In summary, we await the public inquiry that must happen, but it seems 58 (at time of writing) people died in a preventable disaster, that was forewarned, already forestalled in other countries, and seems to have been the result of thoughtless (one hopes) cost cutting from a private company.
But, as Damian Green stated in an extraordinary Radio 4 interview, “we must await the experts”.

Which struck a chord with me.

The mantra “prevention is better than cure” is as true in medicine as it is in fire fighting. Much of what we do, day to day, is about preventing future disease, rather than treating it’s corollaries. We use safety cannulas for preventing needlestick injury, we campaign to stop smoking to prevent lung and other cancers, we screen and treat alcoholics on admission to hospital to prevent deadly withdrawal seizures. When we see impending disaster threatening human life, we have a duty to act, as best we can.

A disaster likely already happened in the NHS, and I cannot help but see the parallels with Grenfell. In February of this year a Royal Society of Medicine Report looked into what was explained away by the government as a “statistical blip.”. Since 2010 the death rate in the U.K. was rising, for the first time in fifty years. More people were dying. To be exact, 30,000 “extra” people died in 2015 compared to what was expected. This study attempted to explain where these extra deaths came from. Was it a subpar flu vaccine one season , as Jeremy Hunt, once and current Health secretary, had claimed? No, the study concluded, the only explanation that fit the data was that 30,000 excess deaths were most likely a direct result of cuts to health and social care services.

Let that sink in.

30,000 men and women, potentially your grandmother or father, sister or uncle, whose deaths were in some way contributed to by cuts to services in the name of “austerity”. Like Grenfell, cutting corners and saving pennies, led to a national disaster. Like Grenfell, multiple agencies have limited oversight over the system as a whole. Yes, the buck stops with the government, but I’m sure they can pass it through any number of government and non-government subsidiaries. Like Grenfell, this essential public service, is sub-contracted in places to private companies, beholden to shareholders as much, if not more, than to the public they are supposed to serve. And like Grenfell, warnings about impending disaster, from “experts” and public alike, have fallen on deaf ears. But unlike Grenfell no one saw these deaths for what they were, a national disaster on a behemoth scale.

Austerity kills. It has already potentially killed 30,000 men and women in health and social care. It has killed at least 58 in Grenfell last week. It has killed thousands of disabled people whose benefits were removed just months before they died. Who knows where else this cost-cutting at any cost has cost lives to save pennies?

If you think I’m politicising this tragedy, you have it backwards. The politics came first, then the tragedy.

Which brings me back to where we started. “Austerity is over” they said. The “mood has changed” they said. As if austerity were always a fanciful choice, a frivolity that was chosen on a whim, as one might decide on a suitable tie, or a wallpaper for the living room. I don’t remember anyone claiming austerity was a “mood” when Osbourne and Cameron were laying waste to health and social care budgets, schools and police funding. Austerity was essential, they said. We have to “live within our means” they said. Except some of us didn’t manage to. Potentially as many as 30,000 of us, our most vulnerable.

So now austerity is over. Was it ever actually necessary? The short answer is no. The long answer is, perhaps for a while, but ultimately still no. Despite what the Mail and Sun has peddled for half a decade, the idea the economy is akin to a household budget is laughable. Pretending we only have control of spending in a government trying to “balance the books” is patently stupid; a government sets it’s own revenues, through tax and VAT, NI and council tax, levies and custom duties, subsidies from other countries, like the EU. Austerity was harmful to our economic recovery. This isn’t left wing socialist claptrap, this is mainstream economics. The IMF agrees as did a large backing of the UK’s top economists. This is economic theory that goes back a hundred years. Any economist could’ve told you that. But of course, we had had enough of listening to “experts” then.

Apparently that’s all changed now.

If we are listening to architects and fire officers again, perhaps we could list to economists and health experts again too, to teachers and police federations. To paraphrase Socrates, wisdom is knowing what one does not know. As a doctor I’ve begun to understand this more and more. Being conscious of the limits of my knowledge makes me safer, means I can operate with uncertainty and know where I need a colleague’s advice, or my boss.

In the age of the internet it seems we now know everything, but understand nothing. For too long we all “knew” that austerity was necessary, that “too much red tape” was throttling business and enterprise, that the NHS was “bloated” and spending “too much money”. Did any of us examine where this “knowledge” came from?

Now we see we knew nothing at all. I hope from these tragedies we can salvage some wisdom.

In an impassioned interview, the MP David Lammy spoke about the “safety net” of schools and hospitals, of decent housing, that is falling apart all around us. Austerity has shredded that safety net, and many have died slipping through the gaps.

Austerity is over, they say. I think we can rebuild this safety net, I hope we can fix the NHS.

But then, what do I know?

Juniordoctorblog.com

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Dear Other Normal Human Beings

I am writing to you, because, like myself, you are a normal human being.

You, like me, wake up in the morning and sleep at night, eat meals, sometimes with loved ones, sometimes alone. We are alike in our requirement for other people, for happiness, for security, for food, for warmth, for shelter.

You may have children, you may have brothers or sisters. You have, or had, parents, and perhaps were lucky enough to know your grandparents.

You may have noticed that many health professionals were becoming uncharacteristically vocal, leading up to the General Election. You may have thought them self-serving, morally bankrupt individuals, upset over their own pay packets.

I would like to explain to you, from one normal human being to another, what is going on.

I am a doctor. I decided to be a doctor before I really knew what decisions were, and can never remember wanting to do anything else. Once I knew how, I found the path, and worked my arse off. Six years, in secondary school, studying. Two years, in college, studying. I took four A-levels, I had 25% less free time than my friends, and when they were out, doing whatever they wanted, I was not. I was studying. Another six years at medical school, studying, and sometimes working to pay for the studying. The last three years of medical school I worked harder than I ever had, and the same hours as a full-time professional, sometimes way more. It even made me sick- in my final year I developed acute gastrointestinal bleeding. But, becoming a doctor was all that meant anything to me. So, I took my top grades and turned them in, in return I got fourteen years hard graft, and £50,000 worth of debt. [2]

Why is this important? Because, from the very beginning, I knew about sacrifices. As thousands of my colleagues have, as millions before me have, and millions will. I knew about sacrifice when I worked for a year before university, so I could afford the rent, when I missed my first family Christmas to work as a warden in student halls, so I could afford to stay at medical school. I knew about sacrifice when I missed nearly every other Christmas since, working, or sometimes studying. I knew about sacrifice when I’ve missed my friends weddings, my nieces and nephews birthdays, when everyone I knew was travelling, and I was studying, or working. Being a doctor, and it’s inherent position in society and in the hearts of the public, is irrevocably tied to sacrifice- it’s the dedication it takes to become, and to stay, a doctor, that by definition requires sacrifices to time, to personal satisfaction. All over the country right now, doctors and nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, radiographers and ward clerks and all the other medical professionals are sacrificing their lives, minute by minute, to try to give you or your loved ones minutes, hours, days or years more. So, when, as a normal person, someone tells you doctors don’t understand ‘vocation’, you know now- it is beat into us before we even get through the door.

But, as a normal person, of course you understand why doctors would defend the NHS, would fight to protect it, and so vociferously attack it’s detractors. They have a vested interest, they want to keep their cushy salaries and great jobs, and the NHS is great for that.

Let me tell you straight: if I didn’t care about you, or my patients, I would be out there campaigning to close the NHS right now. I would make more money in the private sector in a  day than I would in two weeks of NHS work. I could also take my UK Medical degree, one of the most respected qualifications anywhere in the world, and go and earn 50-200% more in the US, Australia, New Zealand [3]. In the private sector, if I stayed after 5pm to look after you, the next thing you see after my smiling face as you exit the hospital, will be the bill on the doormat; ‘overtime’, ‘time in lieu’, ‘additional hours rates’ aplenty.

But, I, like you, have a family. I went to state school, and worked and grafted to pay for my six years at University. Without the NHS my grandmother would have gone blind, my father would have had several heart attacks, my mother would have died. I might have died. A private system would’ve bankrupted them, ended their hopes for a better future in order to pay to survive. I, like you, would do anything for the ones I love, and that is why I campaign to protect and improve the NHS. And that is why, when 5pm comes and goes, as does 6pm, 7pm and all the other hours in between, I, and every colleague I have ever worked with, stays for their sick patient. Because, one day, somewhere, for someone else, that patient will be their mum, or dad, wife or husband, son or daughter.

We have had, and always have had, the extraordinary privilege of one the greatest healthcare systems, pound-for-pound, in the world. The reasons for it’s great outcomes and low cost are debatable. But there are some reasons we never mention. This country has a medical school system of international renown, whose doctors, for the most part, qualify and stay exclusively working within the NHS. The staff of the NHS gives untold free hours to the profession; when I was a first-year junior doctor, I calculated I worked one day at work for £4.10 an hour. I used to get paid more at Tescos. But a very sick patient needed a lot of complex care, and so I stayed, and helped, and he survived: as millions of patients have since 1948. [4]

The moves of the current government against the medical profession are calculated: to deride working conditions, salaries, hours and deplete hospital resources, until a normal person, like myself, buckles under the social, financial and emotional cost. At that point, a sea-change of new, private hospitals will open, and we will go and work there. And our lives will be pretty much the same- different bosses, the same bureaucracy and probably better pay. But our lives, as normal people, will not. You will still pay taxes, a stripped-down NHS will persist, for no frills, emergency care only, but not for all the other healthcare needs of a 21st century population: you will need private healthcare. And that healthcare insurance will cost you hundreds of pounds a year, if not a month. And if you don’t have insurance, you will spend thousands of pounds on the simplest, quickest procedure [5]. And the NHS won’t be there for my family, or the families of normal people across the country.

So, I want this to reach as many normal people as it can. If you don’t act now, it will be too late. It might already be too late.

We care deeply because we can see the great good the NHS does, every single day. And I care because, like you, I care about the ones I love.

Where can you start?

June the 8th, 2017

At the polling booth,

Yours sincerely,

juniordoctorblog.com

[PART 2: A Factual Appendix]

-What normal people appreciate, are hard, solid, unflinching, facts. So here they are.

[2] Medical students studying now can now expect to pay £9000 pay a year as of 2015 for six years for most courses: that is £54,000. Most will require a student loan to pay living expenses for a full time course, at a further £5000 a year that totals £79,000 for six years study. Maintenance grants for the poorest students have been scrapped, adding an additional £10,000 debt as a minimum.

[3] Starting pay for any consultant in the UK : £75, 249. In the US: £111,799.80 for internal medicine, £183,152.91 for a radiologist. ($/GBP rate correct at time of writing). In Australia: a basic salary of £78,000 for internal medicine consultants, BUT this is for a 38 hour working week. Average overtime and up-scale pay between £92,526.97- £244,366.10.  Same with New Zealand for a 40-hour week, after average overtime and up-scale up to £128,039.69.

UK data: http://bma.org.uk/practical-support-at-work/pay-fees-allowances/pay-scales/consultants-england
US data: http://www.payscale.com/research/US/People_with_Jobs_as_Physicians_%2F_Doctors/Salary.
Australian data: http://www.imrmedical.com/australia-salaries-tax
New Zealand data: http://www.imrmedical.com/new-zealand-salaries-tax

[4] The NHS opened it’s doors, metaphorically, July 5th 1948. It’s first patient was a 12-year old girl with a liver condition. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo6/11-12/29

[5] This is incredibly interesting reading, although it is for claims, it is still very reflective of the actual cost. https://www.freedomhealthinsurance.co.uk/downloads/your-choice-procedure-payment-guide