January 11, 2017; Business Insider

The British Red Cross and the government headed by Conservative Prime Minister Teresa May are engaging in a heated dispute over whether the government-funded National Health Service (NHS) is experiencing a “humanitarian crisis.” The dustup has been widely reported in UK media and has been the subject of pointed inquiries from Labor Party members of Parliament during the weekly “Prime Minister’s Questions” (also broadcast on the C-SPAN cable network in the U.S. for the truly hardcore political mavens.

On the one hand, government officials say that Britain looks nothing like Aleppo, Syria, Rwanda, or other global locations where man-made or natural disasters have caused widescale destruction and population displacement, making the Red Cross statement “irresponsible and overblown.” On the other hand, Mike Adamson, British Red Cross CEO, said, “In considering making this statement, I went back and looked closely at the definition of a humanitarian crisis: It refers to the scale and depth of need facing a population. In this case we are seeing large numbers of vulnerable people facing a threat to their health, safety or wellbeing.”

Specifically at issue is access to hospital emergency departments, called “Accident and Emergency,” or A&E, in the UK. The number of patients waiting 12 hours or longer for treatment after entering an emergency department has doubled in the last two years (for the elderly, three times as many wait at least 12 hours compared to two years ago). Last week, it was reported that NHS A&E facilities were closed to new patients 140 times in December.

The prime minister acknowledges that the NHS has recently been under severe strain, but attributes that strain, in larger part, to routine seasonal demand. “We acknowledge that there are pressures on the NHS. There are always extra pressures doing the winter,” she said. She also noted that the NHS treated 2.5 million more people last year than it did six years ago.

Adamson’s decision to label the health care situation as a humanitarian crisis elevated a policy debate from the realm of arcane statistics anecdotal reports to a more comprehensive challenge to the NHS and the British government to address the funding and procedural challenges facing the nation’s sick and injured people seeking urgent treatment. The decision carries with it the risk of alienating some government officials and donors, but so far it appears to have been the right move.—Michael Wyland