I stood in A&E, waiting to accept a patient who had tried to hang himself while waiting for mental-health support. The patient was an eight-year-old boy. Looking around A&E was like being in a Dickens novel. Skeletal fathers, drunk mothers; the Hogarth Gin Lane painting. The poverty was palpable. The corridors were lined with trolleys on which lay our elderly, afraid, alone and sick. Those who fought wars for us. Those who raised us. Some of the patients were cold, too, unable to afford their heating bills, and hungry because they hadn’t any food in their cupboards and meals on wheels were a distant memory. So much suffering and loneliness. The nurses did not always have time to give the kindness, care and attention these people so desperately needed. It was not their fault. I’d worked shifts like this before, where we didn’t drink water or eat because there was no time, not even to use the toilet. In these conditions, nurses are leaving the NHS faster than they are joining. We are now over 40,000 nurses short in England alone.
Patient populations are a true reflection of our human suffering. And we are suffering. The world has become dystopian in such a short space of time. When I started out as a children’s nurse in 1994, the children’s ward was full of babies who had asthma and needed nebulisers. Fat babies smiling through the steam of the oxygen, who got better for the most part pretty quickly and were discharged home – “happy wheezers” we called them. Now the children’s wards are lined with children and teenagers who have self-harmed or attempted suicide, or have been stabbed, been abused in ways you could not even imagine, or are suffering extreme anxiety, or their first psychotic episode and there are no mental-health beds available for them. Knife crime is increasing dramatically, and school nurses are sometimes the only healthcare professionals reaching these vulnerable children, providing vital mental-health support for teenagers, yet school nurse numbers are now at their lowest levels in a decade.
That we are failing our young people and those suffering with mental-health issues so badly is a damning reflection of our values. And the way we treat our elderly is a national disgrace. Elderly people in the community require increasingly complex nursing care because we are living so much longer, and yet the numbers of community nurses are being cut. At a time when our population is ageing like never before, district nurse numbers have halved in seven years. Ask any frontline doctor or nurse – things are getting worse and worse.
The people who will suffer most make up the very communities who were subject to the most egregious false promises and manipulations to encourage them to vote leave in the first instance
A society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. And we live in a time when there are tent villages of homeless people lining the streets, when formula milk is being watered down by people who can’t afford to feed their babies (I remember being shocked a few decades ago to hear of this happening in the developing world). A recent briefing report from Amnesty International highlights why we are more likely to die in the UK from diseases like cancer than in other countries such as Germany, France and Sweden. In 2015/2016, we spent 7.2% of UK GDP on health (under the new definition of health spending, the UK only spends 9.7% of its GDP on healthcare) in comparison with 11% or more GDP from these countries. The UK has fewer nurses and doctors relative to the population. The chancellor recently announced £650m as extra funding for social care in 2019/2020, of which only £240m is ring-fenced for adult social care. According to the King’s Fund, however, adult social care in England needs at least £1.5b more per year simply to cope with current demand.
Our health secretary, Matt Hancock, has reportedly said he cannot guarantee that people won’t die as a result of a no-deal Brexit. There was outrage. But this is no surprise at all to any nurse or doctor working in the UK. People are already dying. And many, many more people will suffer and die as a result of Brexit. I can, very sadly, guarantee that, as could anyone working in A&E, mental health or district nursing. The boy I was waiting for that day in A&E had attempted suicide following a too-long wait for mental-health support. He died on the way to the hospital and could not be resuscitated. He was eight years old.
The people who will suffer most make up the very communities who were subject to the most egregious false promises and manipulations to encourage them to vote leave in the first instance. Nobody knew when the referendum took place what Brexit might look like, but we are currently facing an entire government’s efforts focused on extricating ourselves from endless elaborate legislation and talking in circles, while the House collapses around them.
Meanwhile, we – the people they were elected to serve – are beginning to see a glimpse of a chilling future: yet more suffering for our poorest communities and the most vulnerable members of our society – our young, our sick, our elderly. While all the braying and arguing and political maneuvering is going on in Westminster, people are already dying. We need another vote. We need another vote.
Christie Watson is the author of The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story (Chatto), available now