Why is there always a winter crisis in the NHS?

A winter crisis in the NHS feels like an annual tradition – but it hasn’t always been this way.

In the first four days of 2018, there have been more mentions of “NHS” with “winter crisis” in British newspapers than in the entire period from 2003 to 2009.

:: May apologises for NHS winter crisis

More concerning, that trend matches with a vast increase in the number of people waiting more than four hours for treatment at A&E – a key Government target.

Why? Well, analysis from the health think tank the King’s Fund highlights two key factors.

Firstly, people are using NHS services more. That’s partly due to a growing and ageing population, though that doesn’t explain all of it – people are also simply using services more than they used to.

Secondly, NHS funding is no longer keeping pace with the rising demand. In the years where the “Winter NHS Crisis” slipped off the agenda, funding for the Department of Health increased roughly in line with increases in hospital admissions.

In the years since – and in particular over the last couple of years, where the increase in NHS service users has been particularly acute – it simply has not.

Estimates from the King’s Fund, Health Foundation and Nuffield Trust suggests NHS funding is at least £4bn below what is needed this year – and that’s set to rise to at least £20bn by 2022/23.

So what’s the solution?

The choice appears to be between a fundamental change to the way the NHS works, decreasing the range of services provided or having at least some people pay for the cost of their care at the point of use – or a marked increase in funding which will ultimately have to be paid by the taxpayer.

The Prime Minister visited Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey and apologised for missed operations

Video: May sorry for postponed operations

Public opinion is very clear on Britons’ preference – they say they would be willing to pay more in tax if it goes towards the NHS.

A Sky Data poll last year showed some 68% would support a 1% increase in income tax across the board if it was guaranteed to go to the NHS.

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The risk for politicians is if that support softens when the money comes out of voters’ payslips.

But allowing the current lurch from winter crisis to winter crisis in Britons’ most beloved and trusted institution to continue is also a deadly risk of its own.