‘Care homes were turned into morgues’: Union boss calls health secretary ‘deluded’ as he slams 12 years of Tory cutbacks

Nicky Clough visits her mother Pam Harrison in her bedroom at Alexander House Care Home for the first time since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown restrictions begin to ease, in London, Britain March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Mckay
A union boss accused the government of 'turning care homes into morgues' during the COVID pandemic. (Reuters)

Conservative mismanagement and cuts meant that "care homes were turned into morgues" during the pandemic, a union boss has claimed as he branded the health secretary "deluded".

Gary Smith, GMB general secretary, made the comments on Sunday morning as health secretary Steve Barclay admitted the NHS was under "severe pressure", but said the crisis around it could not be entirely blamed on the COVID pandemic. He also signalled plans to scale back the number of NHS targets.

In Thursday's autumn statement, chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced the health service would receive an extra £3.3bn in each of the next two years while £4.7bn will go into social care.

But there are concerns that the funding will not be enough to tackle issues in the health services, and the government has also faced criticism for the decision to push back long-promised social care reforms to October 2025.

Watch: The NHS is under severe pressure, Steve Barclay says

Smith told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme: "Why didn’t they tax non-doms, why didn't they tax the richest people in this country with the broadest shoulders who pay no tax at all, what have they done about bankers' bonuses?

"The Tory government has made ideological decisions for over a decade about cutting services and that's what has left services on their knees and this is not hyperbole – our care homes were turned into morgues during the pandemic because of mismanagement and cuts.

"People are dying because of cuts to services so I find that interview utterly dishonest and frankly the minister is deluded."

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At one point during the COVID pandemic, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that care home residents accounted for almost a third of the total number of coronavirus deaths in England and Wales.

On Sunday, the Liberal Democrats also criticised the government, with health spokesperson Daisy Cooper accusing Barclay of speaking in a "jumble of jargon".

This Conservative government cannot continue to blame the coronavirus pandemic for years of neglect and mismanagement of our NHS," she said.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay speaks to the media as he leaves BBC Broadcasting House in London, after appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. Picture date: Sunday November 20, 2022. (Photo by Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images via Getty Images)
Health secretary Steve Barclay admitted the NHS is under 'severe pressure' at the moment. (Getty)

The Health Foundation said while the increase to the NHS budget would provide "temporary respite", health and care services would face "difficult trade-offs" on issues such as pay and the backlog.

Anita Charlesworth, director of the Health Foundation, said: "Thursday's statement offered short-term relief, especially compared with other public services.

"The reality is that the NHS is going to be treading water at best, as inflation bites and it faces rising pressures from an ageing population, pay, addressing the backlog and ongoing COVID costs.

"If other parts of the system – especially social care and community care – are also struggling with cost pressures, this makes it harder to deliver healthcare and the 2% will buy less.

"Efficiency can only take the NHS so far. As Health Foundation analysis this week showed, since 2010, if we had kept up with German health spending we'd have spent £73bn more each year, and £40bn more if we'd kept up with France.

"Without greater recognition that our health is our wealth – and vice versa – and a greater focus on its long-term financial sustainability, the NHS is likely to remain on a crisis footing, with difficult trade-offs like performance and rising waiting lists for the foreseeable future."

Royal College of Nursing England director Patricia Marquis said: "This analysis suggests that, like nursing pay, after a decade of low funding growth or – for pay – real-terms cuts, NHS budgets should be rising sharply now but aren’'.

"That the rise in healthcare funding in England has dropped from nearly 7% per year in the 2000s to just 1.2% per year in the 2010s speaks volumes.

"We've called on the government to be bold and take a radical new direction with serious investment in nursing, including fair pay, but this analysis only appears to confirm our worst fears that today's ministers are stuck on yesterday's ideas of giving yet more pay cuts."

Barclay acknowledged on Sunday that the crisis in NHS waiting lists was not entirely due to the pandemic.

He said: "Of course, there were challenges going into the pandemic. That's why we're targeting through the long-term plan significant additional investment into healthcare."

Admitting the NHS is under "severe pressure", he said: "That is why despite the very real challenges in the autumn statement that the chancellor faced he prioritised funding for health."