Crisis in the UK’s NHS Shows why Conservatives are Struggling after 14 Years in Power

AP Photo/Kin Cheung
Nathaniel Dye walks with his trombone during an interview in London, Tuesday, June 18, 2024.

LONDON (AP) — Nathaniel Dye believes he probably won’t live to see Britain’s next election. But the music teacher diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer is doing everything he can to make sure the Labour Party wins this one.

Dismayed by delays in his diagnosis by the National Health Service, the 38-year-old says he feels let down by the Conservative-led government, which health policy experts say has failed to adequately fund the NHS. As a result, he played a central role in the launch of Labour’s election platform earlier this month, going on national television to urge voters to back the party.

“I’ve seen underfunding of the NHS and mismanagement of the NHS cause real problems in the way I’ve been treated,” he told The Associated Press. “And I suppose I consider it the most natural thing in the world to talk to people on a personal level and say, ‘What can we do to improve things?’”

Dye’s story illustrates voters’ frustration with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, which opinion polls show is significantly trailing in parliamentary elections set for July 4.

After 14 years of Conservative-led government, voters blame the party for the litany of problems facing Britain, from sewage spills and unreliable train service to the cost-of-living crisis, crime and the rise in migrants entering the country illegally after crossing the English Channel on inflatable boats.

But no public service is as central to life in the United Kingdom as the NHS, and it is failing to deliver on its promise to provide free health care to everyone.

The NHS is creaking under the weight of an aging and growing population, years of funding constraints, and fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. That means people are waiting longer for everything from primary care appointments to elective surgery and cancer treatment. Some 52% of people were dissatisfied with the NHS last year, 29 percentage points higher than in 2020, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted annually since 1983.

That is good news for Labour, according to Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

“The Conservatives have got nothing to crow about,” he said. “People’s lived experience of the NHS is very, very negative at the moment. However, they retain a great deal of faith in the NHS, and they want to elect a government that they think is going to rescue it.”

Founded by a Labour government in 1947 to fulfill the Conservatives’ wartime pledge to build a fairer society for the men and women who fought to preserve democracy during World War II, the NHS has virtually untouchable status.

If you are British, chances are you were born in an NHS hospital and got your childhood vaccines from a doctor paid by the NHS. If you have a heart attack, you call NHS paramedics and are transported to the hospital in an NHS ambulance. Should you be diagnosed with cancer or any other disease, NHS specialists will likely treat you. And you will never receive a bill.

But because the NHS is so much a part of people’s daily lives, it is also the most glaring example of how the social contract in Britain is fraying.

Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the U.K. budget has been buffeted by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and inflation, all of which increased government expenditures, slowed economic growth and curtailed revenue.

As a result, the health care budget has grown by an average of 2.8% annually over the past eight years, compared with 3.6% over the previous 50 years.

That has squeezed the NHS at a time when demand for its services is rising. On top of that, the NHS is still recovering from the pandemic, which forced many people to defer treatment as doctors and hospitals focused on COVID-19.

In March, more than 7.54 million people in England were waiting for elective surgery such as cataract removals or hip replacements, 65% more than before the pandemic.

But the problems extend far beyond elective surgery.

Newspapers are filled with stories of people waiting weeks to get appointments with their family doctors, children being hospitalized for emergency tooth extractions because they weren’t able to get preventive dental care, and patients who spend hours in the back of ambulances waiting for emergency room backups to clear.

All of that translates to higher avoidable mortality rates than in other major developed nations except the United States, driven by below-average survival rates for many types of cancer, heart attacks and strokes, according to The King’s Fund, an independent think tank devoted to improving health care.

Reversing those trends is the top priority for most voters, said Charlotte Wickens, a policy adviser at the fund.

“And it’s because everyone experiences ill health and everyone needs NHS services,” she said. “Whoever forms the next government will have to do something to change the situation that the health service finds itself in.”

The Conservatives say many of the pressures on the NHS are out of their control and have promised to build 50 diagnostic hubs around the country and boost funding by more than inflation during each year of the next government. Labour plans to tackle the backlogs by spending 1 billion pounds ($1.27 billion) to fund 40,000 more operations, scans and appointments each week, while pledging to train thousands of new general practitioners.

But fixing the NHS will take more than money.

It needs to rethink the way it provides care, making better use of technology and focusing on keeping people healthy, rather than treating them once they get sick, according to The King’s Fund.

Without such changes, more people will have stories like Dye’s.

Dye, who used to run ultramarathons, first sought medical help after he noticed that he was getting slower and slower for no apparent reason.

After blood tests and a stool sample that revealed he might have cancer, Dye experienced several delays before he began chemotherapy.

“Amongst all that is this quiet, uneasy truth that I waited over 100 days in total, from GP contact to having chemotherapy … and the target is 62,’’ he said. “And it’s possible that that wait will shorten my life.”

Tests this week found that Dye was tumor free. But he considers it a temporary reprieve because chances are high that his cancer will return. Doctors say only about 10% of patients in this situation survive for five years.

“I don’t know exactly what needs to happen to give people better outcomes, but I can certainly use my example to say we really need to push for that as soon as possible,” he said.

Dye hopes to do that by telling his story with dark humor that softens the ugly details.

Before becoming an advocate for Labour, Dye focused on raising money for cancer charities, including running the London Marathon while using a colostomy bag and playing a green trombone. He took requests along the route.

His playlist included “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

Outdoing many healthy people who weren’t encumbered by musical instruments, he completed the 26.2-mile course.

“You could say that … there’s no point in me getting politically involved, I’m not going to see the result,” he said. “But I don’t care because I think it comes down to hope.”