Cuts, closures, DIY dentistry: welcome to the NHS in the headquarters of Thérèse Coffey | Therese Coffey
Waiting 24 hours for an ambulance when you have a broken leg isn’t much fun anywhere. In a market town like Saxmundham, about half an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital, there aren’t many other options.
Saxmundham is at the center of Suffolk Coastal, the constituency represented by Therese Coffey, the health secretary, and offers a microcosm of the issues facing the health service.
Whether or not she survives the Tories’ latest course of bloodshed, the health secretary or her successor will face the same challenges Coffey identified when she took office – the ABCD of the health service: ambulances, arrears, care, doctors and dentistry.
John Havard, Saxmundham’s most senior GP, whose elderly patient was left waiting at home, says he doesn’t blame the ambulance service. It was an unusual case and no one suspected a fracture. “They did a very thorough assessment: there was no trauma or pain in the leg, and it was not a fall.”
She had to wait because resources were stretched to the breaking point, with the now familiar queues of ambulances outside the emergency services waiting for space to free up. “It’s just hopeless,” says Havard. “It’s a third world country now.”
If any of Havard’s patients need surgery at Ipswich Hospital, they will have to wait up to 69 weeks depending on their condition. Even an X-ray can take up to four days.
That backlog is disheartening for Havard, 64, who remains enthusiastic about his practice, of which he is the sole partner and employs seven GPs.
“Demand is through the roof,” he says. “When I started here 36 years ago, the hospital had four orthopedic surgeons. Now he has 28. And they’re all busy.
Care is another big challenge. One of the reasons ambulances have to queue is that there is no space inside hospitals, with one in seven beds in England occupied by patients well enough to go home, if they can be cared for. Yet, according to the Care Quality Commission, there are 300,000 vacancies in health and social care.
Karen Kerridge, president of Friends of Halesworth Community Health and Care, is trying to create a retirement home in the town from the Patrick Stead Community Hospital, in a classic Victorian building at the north end of the Coffey constituency, closed in 2015 .
Kerridge says Halesworth is further from a district hospital than any town in England. “The closest is James Paget [near Great Yarmouth]. It’s about a 45 minute drive. In an emergency, it’s a long way,” she says.
“You don’t have any of those little hospitals where people might go out [from acute hospitals] recovering. People came to Patrick Stead for end-of-life care and spent their last days close to family. But there is no place now.
The group Friends campaigned to save the Patrick Stead but without success. “We haven’t really had any support from our MP,” Kerridge said, referring to Coffey. NHS officials said too much of the building was unused and was draining resources.
“We got the promise that we could have a nursing facility in Halesworth and they would order NHS beds. It was better than nothing. And at the time, they promised not to close the hospital until everything was sorted out. The project remains in the pipeline and the hospital was put up for sale last year.
Havard, meanwhile, is awaiting funding for a new operation. The existing building has been flooded three times in recent years by the River Fromus and increased demand from the practice’s 12,000 patients means there is little space. He’s been trying to develop for many years and hopes Coffey can speed up the process to get him a firm answer, one way or another.
A more pressing issue is the recruitment and retention of general practitioners. The number of permanent GPs working in England has fallen by around 7% over the past five years. Havard offered a job in March 2021 to Clare Craik, an experienced general practitioner. She had stopped practicing a few years earlier after a knee injury, but wanted to return to work and continued to train new GPs.
Bureaucracy got in the way. Craik was unable to hold her position for 12 months, as she had to take several exams – which she passed with flying colors – and find a supervisor. “In theory, I could have supervised myself,” she says. “I considered giving up. If you were trying to discourage people from coming back to work, that’s the kind of system you would design.
Of all the problems Coffey faces, dentistry is the most serious. There are no more NHS dentists in Suffolk, according to Mark Jones, one of the founders of the Toothless in England campaign. It started as Toothless in Leiston, a town a few miles from Saxmundham, in a desperate attempt to bring a dentist to the county.
“It just got worse,” Jones said. “People are pulling their teeth and heating needles on the stove so they can puncture their own abscesses.”
Now the campaign has gone national and has arranged for Dentaid, a charity founded in 1995 to bring dentistry to impoverished countries overseas, to set up a mobile clinic in Suffolk. Last week the van visited the county for the fourth time, a temporary oasis in one of the UK’s ‘dental deserts’.
“There’s no shortage of dentists,” Jones said. “What there is is a lack of will from the government to fix things.”