STEPHEN GLOVER:The NHS is not in crisis

STEPHEN GLOVER: Ignore the BBC and Labour shroud-wavers. The NHS is not in crisis… and Boris Johnson is right to stand firm in the face of their hysteria

Can Britain ‘ride out’ the Omicron wave without another lockdown, as Boris Johnson suggested on Tuesday? Or is the NHS being hopelessly overwhelmed as Covid infection rates soar?

The answer to the first question is Yes. The answer to the second is No. But listening to Labour and much media coverage, particularly on the BBC, you would think we were in the grip of a terrible scourge which can only be checked by draconian measures.

Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, yesterday stood in for Sir Keir Starmer, infected with Covid for the second time.

In the Commons she painted a lurid picture of the supposedly dire state of the NHS, and implied that her party was ready to support further restrictions.

Can Britain ‘ride out’ the Omicron wave without another lockdown, as Boris Johnson suggested on Tuesday? Or is the NHS being hopelessly overwhelmed as Covid infection rates soar?

Meanwhile, on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, hysteria was being whipped up. 

Presenter Nick Robinson informed listeners in sepulchral tones that ‘the Prime Minister was forced to acknowledge yesterday that the NHS is under huge pressure’.

Why forced? Didn’t he choose to say what he said?

Mr Robinson then interviewed a GP from Oldham who happened to be a Labour councillor. 

This gentleman took a gloomy view after 17 hospitals in his area of Greater Manchester put some non-urgent operations on hold. Prompted by Mr Robinson, he agreed that a lack of new restrictions was partly to blame.

Mr Robinson also questioned a representative of the Road Haulage Association, who supplied a relatively upbeat picture, saying that problems created by staff absences ‘are not really translating into the supply chain’. 

The somewhat disappointed interviewer concluded: ‘So not too great a problem, at least now.’

Over on BBC television news, the lugubrious figure of Hugh Pym, the BBC’s Health Editor, makes my heart sink each night. 

In the unlikely event of his ever finding some good news to report, he would still contrive to sound miserable.

People who claim to speak on behalf of NHS managers, nurses, ambulance drivers and other hospital workers are swarming on to the airwaves to tell us the NHS will come apart at the seams unless the Government acts.

Will it? I don’t doubt that those working in hospitals are under huge pressure, as is usual at this time of year. They deserve our respect and gratitude. But it doesn’t follow that there should be a lockdown or other restrictions.

Needless to say, the next few weeks are bound to be challenging. Infection rates will go up in some places, though probably not in London, where Omicron seems to have peaked. Pressure on many hospitals is likely to increase. Death rates may rise.

So it is certain that there will be more calls for further stringent measures. While announcing a very welcome relaxation of Covid testing requirements, the PM repeated yesterday in the Commons that the Government doesn’t want to ‘shut down the country again’. We must hope he sticks to his guns.

There are two main flaws in the arguments put forward by the Government’s critics. 

The first is that they exaggerate the predicament of the NHS. The occupancy of hospital beds in England is close to what it was five years ago, pre-Covid, during a gruelling winter for the health service.

Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, yesterday stood in for Sir Keir Starmer, infected with Covid for the second time

According to official figures, there were 17,276 hospital patients with Covid in the UK on Tuesday, compared with 30,775 exactly a year earlier. There are about 140,000 hospital beds in the UK.

In other words, although there is obviously a lot of pressure on the NHS, which is why hospitals in the Greater Manchester area have stopped doing some non-urgent operations, the situation is not as bad as in the recent past.

Indeed, Jeremy Hunt — a former health secretary and no great fan of the PM’s — was almost certainly right when he said yesterday in the Commons that admissions to hospital in London are no longer increasing.

It is perfectly true, of course, that the number of hospital beds in the UK has more than halved over the past 30 years. Germany has more than three times as many per head. Our vaunted NHS has been rash in getting rid of beds, creating unnecessary constraints.

Nevertheless, even with those limitations, the NHS is not yet in the perilous state depicted by some of the Government’s critics, and Angela Rayner was scarcely justified in claiming yesterday that it ‘is struggling to keep afloat’.

As for Labour’s claim that the NHS is unable to function properly because of consistent underfunding, that is hard to swallow, since expenditure has nearly doubled in real terms over the past 40 years, and this Government has been funnelling countless extra billions into it. The NHS has an insatiable appetite.

All that can be said with reasonable confidence is that it is not at breaking point. The Government must continue to resist the false contention that it is. Otherwise we will drift towards lockdown.

There’s a second major flaw in the case made by those agitating for further restrictions. 

They seem not to have noticed that, although our daily rate of new infections is comparable with those of France, Italy or Spain, our Covid death rate in recent weeks has often been lower than theirs.

Admittedly, yesterday’s figure of 334 fatalities for the previous 24 hours was high — the highest since March. But it almost certainly included many deaths unreported during the Christmas and New Year break.

Looking back over the past few weeks, the daily Covid death rate in the UK has tended to be markedly below that of several European countries, some of which have had lower infection rates.

One possible explanation, floated by Dr Clive Dix, a former head of the vaccine taskforce, is that the United Kingdom’s earlier reliance on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine — preposterously vilified by the likes of President Macron of France — has given us an edge.

People who claim to speak on behalf of NHS managers, nurses, ambulance drivers and other hospital workers are swarming on to the airwaves to tell us the NHS will come apart at the seams unless the Government acts. Pictured: Ambulances outside Bradford Royal Infirmary hospital

Another explanation, which seems even more likely to me, is that Britain has accomplished a significantly higher proportion of booster jabs than France, Italy and even Germany. 

Granted, nearly nine million people in the UK still haven’t received a booster, even though there are supposed to be two million slots available this week. Refusing a booster (unless you have, or have just had, Covid) is a very foolish thing to do, in view of the high degree of protection it confers.

The point stands that the UK’s booster programme has hitherto been more successful than those of most European countries. This must account in large measure for our recent less alarming fatality rate.

In short, Mr Johnson’s evangelising of boosters, and his avoidance of lockdown measures, is succeeding — and will succeed all the more if a substantial number of those nine million step forward to be jabbed.

Some 100 rebellious Tory MPs have put steel in the PM’s spine, since he knows they would oppose more restrictive measures. 

But he must, all the same, be congratulated for resisting the doomsayers in the Labour Party, the scientific community (though there are notable exceptions) and on the BBC.

Will Boris Johnson stand firm? These will be difficult weeks. The pressure on him will be immense. But if he can carry the country through Omicron, so that the economy and society do not suffer further grievous blows, it will be an undeniable political triumph.

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