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A&E access restriction is putting lives at risk

The NHS cuts and privatisation agenda is continuing apace – it must be resisted, warns HELEN O’CONNOR

ACCIDENT & emergency departments and GPs are the two places that most of the British public know they can go to get assessment and treatment if they are sick or injured. 

These two services are the gateway to the NHS and the gates are being slowly shut. 

A new scheme for A&E departments is currently being trialled across London which urges the public to dial 111 if they think they need “urgent treatment but not treatment for a life-threatening condition.” 

It is unprecedented for any person in this country to be instructed to phone in before they can access emergency care. 

A false argument that people misuse the NHS is being developed to support these changes. 

A clear message is being delivered to the public that it is not OK to go straight to A&E when they are sick or injured which will add to the general reluctance to attend hospitals due to fears of contracting coronavirus.

The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the general public never relish the idea of wasting their precious time waiting in an A&E when they have busy lives. 

People turn up to an A&E when they are worried that their child is sick or injured or when they are in pain, distress and discomfort themselves. 

When large numbers of the needy and the dispossessed turn up in a casualty department you can be sure that there are no alternative services offering them support and the state is failing them on an epic scale.

It’s not easy for someone with no medical experience and/or difficulty accessing the internet to have any idea of what is actually wrong with them when they experience a set of symptoms. 

Doctors and nurses receive years of specialist training to enable them to make accurate diagnoses and this training and experience is a vital part of accurately diagnosing and treating patients. 

Clinical training and experience is now being undermined by the requirement for people to “dial in for access” where a call handler uses a chart with “prompt questions” with the aim of directing as many patients away from the NHS as possible. 

It is important to point out that this change is occurring in an era where it is increasingly difficult for people to get a GP appointment and Zoom calls are slowly but surely replacing face-to-face GP appointments which compounds the risk to patients. 

Overworked NHS staff struggling with understaffing deliberately created by decades of real-terms NHS funding cuts will feel torn by this latest development to restrict A&E access. 

Clinicians working in hospitals might breathe a sigh of relief at the idea that they might get some temporary respite from their crushing workloads which have worsened in the era of Covid-19. 

NHS clinicians working in community settings will feel very concerned about where their patients will get support out of hours when community services are closed because “attending A&E” will be part of every out-of-hours care plan for these vulnerable groups of people. 

Furthermore NHS employees who are worried about developments that restrict access and treatment are prevented from speaking out publicly about any concerns they may have as they could be accused of “bringing the trust into disrepute” and subjected to disciplinary proceedings.

In the fifth-richest country in the world we should aspire to have a safe, effective and comprehensive healthcare system that is easy to access, rather than the reverse of that. 

What we are getting is the advancement of the NHS cuts and privatisation agenda posed as “a revolution in care” and the end result will be that the most vulnerable in our society will be unable to access the NHS and they will suffer and die quietly. 

This is why patient groups and staff organised into their trade unions must unite to oppose these developments and all of the other attacks on the NHS.

Helen O’Connor is GMB Southern Region organiser.

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