World News

May Apologizes for Delays in Britain’s Health System

Posted January 4, 2018 5:32 p.m. EST
Updated January 4, 2018 5:36 p.m. EST

LONDON — A day after denying that the National Health Service was facing a crisis, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain apologized Thursday for delays throughout the health care agency as it scrambled to cope with a particularly difficult winter season.

“I know it’s difficult, I know it’s frustrating, I know it’s disappointing for people, and I apologize,” she said in a television interview after being asked if she would be happy if a relative were put through the delays that patients were facing.

A flu outbreak, colder weather and high levels of respiratory illness have put an unusually severe strain on the NHS this winter, forcing the service to postpone thousands of nonurgent surgeries and outpatient appointments to free up hospital beds and staff.

And all that comes against a backdrop of years of austerity-driven budget restraints, as well as staffing shortages that many health experts attribute to the anti-immigrant atmosphere fostered by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, which is driving foreign health care workers back to their home countries.

In several emergency wards across the country, patients are having to wait more than 12 hours before they are tended to by a health professional. Hospital corridors are brimming with patients waiting for wards to be freed up, and nonurgent cases are being referred to pharmacies or general practitioners.

Over Christmas week, more than 4,700 people were stuck in ambulances for more than an hour while they waited for space in hospital wards, news agencies reported.

On Wednesday, May denied that there was a crisis and said the NHS was better prepared for winter than “ever before,” adding that extra funding had been infused to meet the higher demands of the winter. But the $2.2 billion increase she referred to fell far short of the $5.4 billion that Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the service, requested last year.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said that May’s apology was not good enough and blamed her Conservative Party for the crisis.

“Nurses, doctors and patients are pleading with her to properly fund our health service, but she is ignoring them,” he tweeted Thursday.

He told the House of Commons last month that the hospitals’ four-hour waiting time targets had not been met for more than two years.

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, also apologized to patients facing delays.

“It is absolutely not what I want,” he said. “There are real pressures, no doubt about it. This is the busiest week of the year for the NHS.”