When is a new hospital NOT a new hospital? When this government has a hand in it…

On 19 August Health minister Sajid Javid tweeted that he was on his way to open “one of the new 48 hospitals” promised by his government. Only he wasn’t.  He was going to open a new cancer unit, part of an existing hospital: the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, Cumbria, opened by Tony Blair in 2000.

His department doubled down on the ‘new hospital’ lie as it tweeted pictures of a beaming Javid posing next to the new wing. In addition, both Javid and his department failed to mention that a) the new cancer facility had been approved back in 2017, before Johnson was prime minister; and b) was, in part, a refurbishment of existing buildings.

Why lie?
The new cancer centre contains:

  • two linear accelerator radiotherapy machines
  • a chemotherapy day unit with 15 treatment chairs and three single treatment rooms
  • a CT scanner suite
  • consultation, examination rooms and a small café area
  • multipurpose rooms for complementary therapies and patient support.

Fantastic! Make a fuss about that! But don’t p*ss down our necks and tell us it’s raining!

The fib attracted a number of comments on social media including many asking whether adding a conservatory or a garage to their home suddenly made it a new house. In these dark times, people must search for the humour in every situation.

Do you remember seeing that cringeworthy bit of film of Johnson’s cabinet, behaving like a class of kindergarten kids responding to the shambolic headteacher as they chorused the pledge to build 40 hospitals (now 48, apparently) amongst many other as yet un-met promises?

Now, call me old-fashioned, but I would expect a new hospital to be new. And I would expect it to add capacity to an already overstretched NHS. Between 2010-11 and 2019-20 England’s overall number of NHS hospital beds fell by 11%, from 144 455 to 128 943 and the number of available general and acute beds fell by 8%, from 110 568 to 102 194, according to the health think tank, the King’s Fund.

In 2019 Siva Anandaciva, the King’s Fund’s chief policy analyst, referring to the Conservatives’ manifesto claim that work on six new hospitals had already been started, said :

“The phrase ‘six new hospitals’ might suggest the NHS will see its stock of hospitals grow with six brand new, fully-staffed hospitals that offer a full range of services.

“But – in reality – the promised investment is likely to pay for new facilities on existing hospital sites and the redeployment of existing staff.”

An accurate diagnosis. But it gets more sinister and more surreal…straight out of 1984 like so much that this government does. Any and all major refurbishments and additional wings or units must be referred to as a “new hospital“, just as nurses who agree to stay on rather than retiring are called ‘new nurses’.

Dr Rachel Clarke wrote a powerful piece in the Guardian on the demoralising effect on staff of these endless empty promises. It must be terrible for health professionals. It is dispiriting enough for us lay folk. She nails the political scheming that got Johnson to where he is today. Here she is on the ‘new money’ pledged in the 2019 election and beyond:

Size, [Johnson] realised, was everything. By the 2019 Conservative party conference, the “new” money had ballooned to £3bn, and, by the end of the year, he fought the general election on a manifesto pledge to build and fund “40 new hospitals” over the next decade. Journalists swiftly observed that in fact only six upgrades of existing hospitals had actual funds committed, and the number of funded “new” hospitals amounted to precisely zero. Instead, various NHS trusts would share a mere £100m of “seed money” to help them draw up plans – paper plans – for 34 future projects.

No matter that the numbers didn’t add up. Like “Get Brexit done”, “40 new hospitals” was another headline-grabbing, three-word soundbite. Johnson has duly repeated it ad nauseum. By October last year, like Pinocchio’s nose, the numbers had grown again. This time a staggering 48 new hospitals were promised, or, as Johnson put it: “the biggest hospital building programme in a generation”. You can unravel that claim on the back of an envelope. With a new-build hospital costing around £500m, 48 of them would clearly require £24bn and not the £3.7bn promised by Johnson. The numbers simply don’t add up.

That’s Johnson all over, isn’t it? The numbers simply don’t add up. Mostly they fall spectacularly, woefully short of what is really needed. Other times they are crazily, shockingly, disproportionately enormous like the £37 billion on the largely-dysfunctional private company-run Test Track and Trace system, or hundreds of millions wasted on useless PPE, or £250 million (and rising) for a vanity project yacht or nearly a million just to paint a flag on a plane tail. Of course, in the latter cases, money was going into the hands of mates and private companies. Silly me. Explains everything!

Police recruitment and nurse numbers fall into the same smoke and mirrors category. Spend years cutting numbers and then try to get a few back in and claim you are adding resource. Sadly it fools some. It makes for good soundbites and claims to deliver on the ‘people’s priorities, which sounds so much sexier than ‘finally taking measures to attempt to repair the damage done by years of austerity’.

The bottom line is that you really cannot believe anything Johnson and his government say. And it’s their own fault. They have lied, spun and destroyed trust. Some day it will surely come back to bite themand they can pay for treatment for that out of their own pockets.