Public satisfaction with the NHS has fallen to its lowest level since 1997, with just 36% of voters satisfied with the way the health service is run and performing.
More people in England, Scotland and Wales are now dissatisfied (41%) with the NHS than satisfied for the first time since 2002, according to research by the National Center for Social Research (NatCen). Discontent then led Tony Blair’s Labor government to raise taxes to improve service and introduce targets to ensure prompt care.
Satisfaction has fallen 17% since 2020 – the biggest drop since records began in 1983. The collapse was caused by frustration over long waiting times for all major types of NHS care, continuing staff shortages in the service and a widespread belief that the government has denied it is the funding it needs.
NatCen’s UK Social Attitudes Survey found lowest levels of satisfaction with GPs (38%), Dentists (33%), A&E (39%) and Inpatient Services (41%) and ambulatory (49%) since it started tracking public attitudes. .
Change has occurred among people of all ages, income groups, genders and political affiliations.
Think tanks King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust, which published the results, said they were unprecedented and represented “the most extraordinary set of results we have seen”.
The Covid pandemic and subsequent disruption to NHS services compounded the drop in satisfaction, but dissatisfaction – particularly with access to GP appointments and routine surgery – was evident long before that. The NHS has suffered a decade-long funding shortage and a failure to address chronic understaffing, the think tanks added.
“People often struggle to get the care they need and have identified access to general medicine, waiting times for hospital care and staffing shortages as areas that need improvement,” said said Dan Wellings, principal investigator at the King’s Fund.
While the arrival of the pandemic in 2020 initially created ‘a halo effect’ around the NHS, this gave way last year to more negative public attitudes as people ‘saw other services opening up’ . [and] thinking ‘well why isn’t the NHS opening?’ “, he added.
Around four in ten people in England are now either on the 6.1million waiting list for planned NHS care or have a family member who is. “That’s the story behind the frustration – people are deteriorating and in pain, people are visiting their GP because they can’t get into hospital because of waiting lists,” Wellings said.
In better news for the NHS, the representative survey of 3,112 Britons conducted in September and October found strong and enduring support across all voting lines for its founding principles: that it is funded by general taxation and available for free. The public also remain satisfied with the quality of care they receive and the attitude and behavior of the staff they encounter when being treated.
“People can be very supportive of the NHS and simultaneously be dissatisfied,” said Professor John Appleby, director of research and chief economist at the Nuffield Trust.
Wellings declined to draw parallels with the current high public discontent and discontent that was a key issue in the 1997 general election and contributed to the defeat suffered by Conservative Prime Minister John Major.
But the discontent could turn into a political problem for Boris Johnson, he added. “This is a very worrying set of findings for the government, given the place of the NHS in the minds of the British public and the fact that it is one of the key issues people vote on at election time. “
The Department of Health and Social Care did not comment directly on the results. A spokesperson said: “The pandemic has put enormous pressure on the NHS which is why we are focused on recovering from the impact of Covid and implementing reform. We have set out our plan to tackle the Covid-19 backlog, backed by our record multi-billion pound investment over the next three years.
“We have seen a record number of staff working for the NHS this year, with over 4,300 doctors and over 11,700 more nurses compared to last year, and we have recently tasked the NHS with developing a strategy long-term manpower.”
Professor Martin Marshall, president of the Royal College of GPs, said he was “extremely disappointed and saddened” by the record low level of satisfaction with GP services. He highlighted the key role of family doctors in rolling out the Covid vaccine and pointed to the main issues facing GPs as the main reason why some patients struggle to get an appointment.