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United Kingdom: the nurses' strike symptomatic of a kneeling health system

The mobilization of nurses on December 15 and 20 - a first in 106 years - sheds harsh light on the crisis facing the NHS, an institution adored by the British on their knees after years of austerity, a pandemic and record inflation.

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United Kingdom: the nurses' strike symptomatic of a kneeling health system

The mobilization of nurses on December 15 and 20 - a first in 106 years - sheds harsh light on the crisis facing the NHS, an institution adored by the British on their knees after years of austerity, a pandemic and record inflation.

“Winter is going to be tough,” has already warned Matthew Taylor, director of the NHS Confederation which represents hospitals in England.

Some 7.1 million people are awaiting treatment in the country, a record.

Difficulties in replacing exhausted staff leaving the sector have further intensified a crisis that is set to last, as record inflation and recession mean cuts in public spending.

But the economic crisis is already adding to a series of problems that the NHS, an institution created in 1948 and financed by taxes, has been facing for years.

Because the system, which costs 190 billion pounds a year (221 billion euros) and employs 1.2 million people in England alone, has long been underfunded.

For Richard Sullivan, professor specializing in cancer at King's College London, the NHS crisis has been latent "for years".

“Once you start to overheat the engine, you wear it out,” he sums up. "I think we are in for some very difficult years."

Health experts say the crisis is exacerbated by 12 years of budget cuts under successive Conservative governments, as well as Brexit (many carers coming from the EU) and the pandemic, which has delayed non-emergency care.

The cost of living crisis linked to record inflation in the United Kingdom has sparked many social movements in all sectors, from transport to justice and now including health.

"I don't know what to do, I don't know how my colleagues are going to do," laments Ameera (she declined to give her name), a London nurse as real wages plummet due to rising prices.

"They are really struggling to feed their families, they go to food banks," she told AFP.

According to her, the nurses chain the guards and suffer from the shortage of staff partly linked to the new post-Brexit migration rules.

NHS England must fill 130,000 positions, including 12,000 doctors in hospitals and 47,000 nurses.

The nurses are supposed to take care of four patients per call, but they are sometimes asked for twice as many while alternating day or night shifts.

"We only have two eyes," laments Ameera. "Morale is really low."

- "Collapse" -

In addition to shortages in hospitals, there is a lack of general practitioners. As a result, more and more people are unable to make an appointment and are going to the emergency room for treatment.

"I've never seen such an influx of patients coming in and needing help they can't get," Ameera says. “There are constantly queues stretching out on the road,” she adds. "The NHS is on the verge of collapse."

Underfunded, the NHS has not been spared by successive scandals in recent years and have highlighted shortcomings in the day-to-day management of services.

This year there have been numerous reports of serious "failures" in maternity wards, contributing to the deaths of babies who might have survived if they had received better care.

For Mr. Sullivan, all these problems have no short-term solution and the United Kingdom must imitate countries like Denmark and Sweden and abandon a health system designed in a market logic.

The sector needs "better organization, better structures, better leadership and better policies", he said.

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