The British public is the unhappiest it has ever been with the NHS, but still supports it in principle, a new survey has found.
The overall satisfaction with the NHS now stands at 29% – a fall of seven percentage points and the fourth-largest drop ever recorded in a single year. In 2010, satisfaction with the NHS was 71%.
The British Social Attitudes survey has tracked public opinion consistently since 1983.
Some 51% of people are unhappy with the healthcare service, a rise of 10 percentage points in a single year, and the highest levels of dissatisfaction since the survey began.
The 40th annual survey took place in September and October last year and asked 3,362 people from England, Wales and Scotland their opinions on health and social care.
The findings paint a worrying picture of how people perceive the NHS.
Over two-thirds of respondents (69%) chose long waiting times for GP and hospital appointments as one of the top reasons for dissatisfaction.
Accident and emergency departments have seen a sharp increase in the percentage of dissatisfied respondents, with a record 40% saying they are unhappy, according to analysis by the Nuffield Trust and The King’s Fund.
General practice (GPs), dentistry and inpatient hospital services were among the other areas reaching record levels of dissatisfaction, with the findings consistent across all ages, income groups, genders and political persuasions.
Of those who were satisfied with the NHS, the top reason was because NHS care is free at the point of use (74%), followed by the quality of NHS care (55%) and that it has a good range of services and treatments available (49%).
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the survey results should be a “red flag to the government”.
The results “should not be seen as a judgement of the efforts of frontline staff to recover services in the wake of the pandemic but rather, a sign that the NHS is not being given what it needs to fully deliver for its local communities”.
“With there being around 124,000 reported vacancies across the NHS in England and a maintenance backlog stretching over £10bn this is hardly surprising,” he added.
Almost 80% of NHS staff consider quitting
Unhappiness within the NHS is not restricted to members of the public, with a separate survey finding 75.5% of workers are considering leaving the service altogether.
The survey of 2,500 NHS employees by Organise found more than half are taking days off due to stress, anxiety or burnout.
The majority also said patients are experiencing medication errors, delays in procedures and compromised quality of care as a result.
It comes as thousands of NHS staff are striking with demands for better pay and improved working conditions.
Anabela De Barros, a recovery nurse working in London, told Sky News the pandemic left many NHS staff deeply traumatised.
“I have never seen so many dead patients in my life,” she said, speaking about her work during COVID.
“And it was nice that everyone was clapping for us. But I know nurses that are now going to food banks, so it’s not enough.”
Ms De Barros has just voted to reject the latest pay deal offered to nurses.
“We’ve had Brexit, COVID and now the war in Ukraine has made the cost of living so high. We are just tired. We are exhausted. And it doesn’t seem like it is going to get better any time soon.”
Nat Whalley, CEO and co-founder of Organise – a worker-led network for fixing employment – called it a “ticking time bomb at the heart of our healthcare system”.
“We don’t need empty promises; we need tangible investments in the NHS that allow workers to thrive in their roles, without suffering from stress, anxiety, and burnout,” said Ms Whalley.
Despite being unhappy, Brits still support the NHS
Despite the high levels of dissatisfaction with how services are operating, the public continues to show strong support for the principles underpinning the NHS.
Nine in 10 people backed the idea that the NHS should be free of charge when people need it.
But more than eight in 10 believe there is a major or severe funding problem for the service.
While taxation remains the favoured source of funding, more people believe the service should live within its budget.
Jessica Morris, report author and fellow at the Nuffield Trust, said: “It is clear that the level of unhappiness amongst the British public over the way the NHS is running is going to take many years to recover.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the government was “hugely grateful” to NHS and social care staff for their working during the pandemic and dealing with the subsequent backlog.
“Cutting waiting lists is one of the prime minister’s five priorities and so far, we have virtually eliminated waits of over two years for treatment and latest figures show the number of patients waiting over 18 months has reduced by 80% from the peak,” they added.
A spokesperson for NHS England said: “The NHS is taking significant steps to further improve patient experience, including our recently-launched blueprint to recover urgent and emergency care alongside continuing to slash the long waits for elective treatment which inevitably built up during the pandemic, and we are working on new plans to boost primary care for patients as well as publishing a long-term workforce strategy shortly.”
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They also highlighted the government’s £14.1bn investment in health and social care over the next two years.
Wes Streeting MP, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “Support for the values that the NHS was built upon are unshakable. It will fall to the next Labour government to reform and rebuild the NHS, so it once again delivers quality care for patients, free at the point of use.”