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Britain’s state-funded National Health Service facing hard winter

January 30, 1997

LONDON (AP) _ Cold weather and a flu epidemic have strained hospitals run by the state-funded National Health Service, with some blaming their problems on staff shortages and lack of cash.

With a national election due by May, the National Health Service is one of the biggest issues between the Conservatives and the opposition Labor Party.

``We’re currently facing what is probably the biggest crisis in accident and emergency in this hospital that I can remember in 12 years of being a consultant here,″ Dr. Lawrence Jaffey, clinical director of Royal Liverpool Hospital’s accident and emergency department, said in a BBC documentary.

In his department, the workload is up by 50 percent in five years while funding has not increased, said the documentary, which is being broadcast today.

The government says that the first weeks of January are always difficult because bad weather exacerbates some chronic ailments and people tend to put off medical care but, on the whole, the public health system is getting more resources and performing better every year.

Critics, however, point out these recent cases:

_ Tony Usher, 60, suffering heart failure, was taken by ambulance on New Year’s Eve 50 miles across southeast England because his local hospital had no room. The trip took six hours because of snow, and Usher died on the way.

_ In Leeds, northern England, a gynecological ward at St. James’ Hospital has been closed and its 35 beds allocated to elderly patients suffering heart problems, bronchitis and other illness made worse by winter cold.

_ In Sunderland, northeast England, a child was taken 120 miles by ambulance to a hospital in Scotland because no intensive care bed could be found for her locally.

``It is true that, since Christmas, the National Health Service as been under pressure,″ Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell said in a House of Commons debate Jan. 21. ``I do not seek to deny that. It regularly happens during the first few weeks of the year.″

Dorrell refused to discuss specific incidents, but ticked off a list of cities and regions where the number of emergency beds had been increased.

The government says it has increased spending on the health service every year in real terms, and says its injection of market-style reforms in the system have shortened waiting times for non-emergency care. This year the NHS budget is $73 billion.

A commentary published last week in The Lancet, a British medical journal, took a sanguine view of recent events. ``It looks as though the government has escaped from its biggest electoral threat _ a media united in its belief that the National Health Service is being starved of the necessary funds to provide the extra care needed in winter,″ the article said.

The Office for National Statistics noted a significant increase in deaths from all causes in the new year _ 19,553 in the week ending Jan. 10 and 17,496 in the week following, compared to the January average of 13,000-14,000 a week. There were 103 deaths from flu in the first week and 60 in the second.

A poll conducted by The Gallup Organization late last year found that health was rated the nation’s second most urgent issue, behind unemployment. Another Gallup survey found that three-fifths believed the Health Service would get worse if the Conservatives won re-election.

Set up in 1948 by a Labor government, the National Health Service provides treatment to all, free of charge. Those who can afford it have the option of buying private care.

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