THE crisis in the NHS is worse than it was at the height of the pandemic and warrants a COBRA-level response from the UK Government, Dr Philippa Whitford has said.

Whitford, an SNP MP and former breast surgeon, told The National that an “emergency response” from government was warranted by the pressure being placed on the health service.

High levels of Covid and flu, combined with structural and staffing issues dating back to the beginning of Tory austerity, have created a “perfect storm”, Whitford said.

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And, she warned: “When we talk about the winter crisis, it is normally January and February, so it may well be that there is much worse to come.”

Whitford said: “We knew from Australia that this was going to be a bad flu season. It hits one hemisphere and then the other, so we knew from Australia that it would be early and it would be hard. Now we’re seeing that.

“I don’t think even during Covid it was the way it is now, the cries for help from my colleagues and friends who are still in the NHS. It really is an absolute nightmare.

“You literally need a crisis response. What they should be doing is having COBRA. I certainly think it’s of that calibre."

The acronym COBRA refers to the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms where UK ministers meet to discuss responses to national or international crises. But instead of treating the issue with urgency, the UK Government has insisted that it has already acted to give the NHS the support it needs to weather the storm.

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Speaking on Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said: "I think we are confident we are providing the NHS with the funding it needs as we did throughout the pandemic to deal with these issues.

"I think we have been up front with the public long in advance of this winter that because of the pandemic and the pressures it has placed and the backlog of cases that this would be an extremely challenging winter and that is what we are seeing and we remain thankful to frontline NHS and care staff who are providing this level of care to the public in a challenging time."

Whitford (below) suggested that having a weaker NHS “suits the Tories” who were hoping to push the health service towards greater privatisation.

The National: MP Dr Philippa Whitford

She went on: “You’ve got Brexit, 12 years of austerity, and then you’ve got Covid. You’ve got lots of things that are structural, political, and policy decisions that were made – often in Westminster – that then impact the NHS of course across England but also in the devolved nations.

“The devolved governments are between a rock and a hard place. The first movement has to be at Westminster to get funding so that the devolved nations get the Barnett Consequentials.”

The SNP MP said the foundations of the current crisis in the NHS had been laid a decade ago by Tory austerity politics.

She went on: “If you look at the uplifted NHS funding from its foundation to 2010, usually it was between 3.5-4% a year. Then it went down to 0.8 for several years, then it was around 2%. The NHS faced 10 years of austerity and then got hit by a pandemic, something which had not happened in the NHS’s lifetime.

“What we’ve had is the NHS try to catch up with the backlog, and go into a winter with a hard flu, Covid cases rising, and all the other problems that have come home to roost, particularly around things like Brexit, social care, workforce, cost, all this stuff that we’ve been bleating on about for years.

“We are in a bigger crisis now than we were during Covid. It is literally a perfect storm.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS staff do an incredible job and we recognise the pressures the NHS is facing following the impact of the pandemic.

"That's why we've backed the NHS and social care with up to £14.1 billion additional funding over the next two years and this winter we have provided an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds. We also awarded a 9.3% pay rise to the lowest earners in the NHS last year.

"The Health Secretary and ministers have met with unions several times and have been clear their door remains open to further discuss how we can work together to improve the working lives of NHS staff."