Guardian’s ‘33 hours’ shows reality of NHS on edge of collapse, say doctors

‘Devastating’ report exposing pressures in health service should be wake-up call to ministers, say senior medics

Ministers must get a grip on the crisis engulfing the NHS or risk its collapse, senior doctors have warned after a “shocking” and “devastating” special report by the Guardian exposed the “daily reality” of the pressure facing health staff and its “dire impact” on patients.

Thirty-three months after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic, the Guardian spent 33 hours inside the NHS, reporting from inside a hospital, an ambulance service, a pharmacy and a GP surgery.

Dr Adrian Boyle, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, and Prof Philip Banfield, the chair of the British Medical Association, said the “vivid” and “unsettling” account from the frontline should serve as a wake-up call to the government.

Without action to increase the capacity of the NHS, retain and recruit staff, and resolve longstanding problems in social care, they said, more patients would die – and the service itself was at risk of complete collapse.

“Almost three years since the onset of the pandemic, the 33 hours retold in this piece are the everyday experiences lived by our members, their colleagues and the people in communities across the country who so desperately need care,” said Banfield. “Many will find it shocking.”

Covid is no longer the dominating, deadly factor it once was, the Guardian found. But the NHS now faces an even greater challenge, the report showed, with a record backlog and a relentless surge in sick people needing urgent care – on top of many other factors, including a huge workforce crisis.

“This is a vivid and unsettling illustration of the daily reality facing those who work on the frontline of our health and social care services – and the dire impact that current pressures are having on patients,” said Banfield. “The NHS was strained even before the arrival of Covid-19, and now it teeters on the very edge of collapse.

“Doctors, nurses and their colleagues across health and social care, as seen in this piece, are going to heroic efforts to try to deliver care in unimaginably challenging circumstances.”

The Guardian’s special report also highlighted how an “understaffed, under-resourced” NHS meant those staff remaining – many of whom are “exhausted and demoralised” after 33 months battling Covid – were now edging “closer towards the exit door”, Banfield said.

“Accounts like this illustrate that patient care is already suffering as a result of demand outstripping capacity, so to lose more staff at this critical juncture would be a disaster,” he added. “This should be a wake-up call to the government to demonstrate its commitment to valuing and retaining staff, and to protecting patients.”

Boyle, the most senior emergency medicine doctor in the country, also welcomed the report, adding that, in his view, it should prompt immediate action.

“The Guardian has recorded and reported our daily reality,” he said. “Our membership from across the UK will be familiar with every anecdote, quote, and story within this. We need action now before the depths of winter sink us further and more patients die.”

The single biggest issue exposed and explained by the Guardian, he said, was the struggle to discharge medically fit patients, which is the main driver of “poor flow through our hospitals”.

In the short term, the social care workforce must be bolstered to ensure the timely discharge of patients, Boyle said. “It is vital that we are able to get a grip of this.”

Samantha Wathen, of the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, said the “vitally important” report was a “devastating assessment of just how far the NHS has fallen”. It “perfectly highlights the human side and the very real repercussions on NHS workers and patients that over a decade of government underfunding and understaffing has caused”, she added.

“We can only hope that this work will go some way in persuading the government to urgently change things for the better. The current NHS situation is both unsustainable and inhumane.”

Saffron Cordery, the interim chief executive at NHS Providers, said: “The findings of this investigation will likely ring true for many trust leaders across acute, ambulance, mental health and community services.”

Daisy Cooper MP, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and the party’s health spokesperson, said the Guardian’s reporting had exposed the impact of “outright neglect” of the NHS by ministers.

“Every one of these stories is absolutely horrifying,” she said. “This should serve as a wake-up call to the Conservative government that the NHS cannot be abandoned for a minute longer.”

Labour’s Wes Streeting MP, the shadow health secretary, said the special report highlighted “the terrifying consequence of 12 years of Conservative failure to train the staff the NHS needs”.

The government declined to comment.


Andrew Gregory and Denis Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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