Public satisfaction with the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales has fallen to its lowest level since the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) started recording public views of the taxpayer-funded health service 40 years ago.
The latest results, published on Wednesday, referred to 2022, when NHS performance hit new lows, with more than 7mn people queueing for hospital treatment and the worst A&E waits and ambulance response times on record.
The health service has been struggling with growing demand and staff vacancies, pressures which have been compounded in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The BSA found overall satisfaction with the health service stood at 29 per cent. This represented a fall of 7 percentage points from the previous year and the fourth largest year-on-year drop ever recorded.
Dissatisfaction is also at an all-time high, doubling since 2020 to a point where more than half of respondents now say they are unhappy with standard of services.
Jessica Morris, report author and fellow at the Nuffield Trust, said while prime minister Rishi Sunak had made NHS recovery one of his central promises going into the next general election, the results pointed to the enormous task ahead.
“It is clear that the level of unhappiness among the British public over the way the NHS is running is going to take many years to recover,” she added.
Underlining the scale of the slide, Dan Wellings, co-author and senior fellow at The King’s Fund which worked with Nuffield on the analysis, noted that in 2010 satisfaction with the NHS had hit a record high of 70 per cent.
“The public can see for themselves the results of more than a decade of underfunding and a lack of workforce planning,” he added.
Nurses, ambulance crews, physiotherapists and other non-medical NHS staff have been locked in dispute with the government in recent months over work and pay conditions.
The disgruntled mood transcended age, economic circumstances and political affiliation.
Long waits for treatment particularly irked the public. More than two-thirds of respondents chose long waiting times for GP and hospital appointments as one of their top reasons for dissatisfaction.
Meanwhile, staff shortages were blamed by 55 per cent while 50 per cent held the view that the government did not spend enough money on the NHS.
The analysis noted a marked rise in concern about the performance of accident and emergency departments. A record 40 per cent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with A&E services, an increase of 11 percentage points from the previous year.
The sharpest area of public disappointment was social care — which, unlike the NHS, is means-tested — where just 14 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied and only 2 per cent very satisfied.
However, public support for the principles underpinning an institution that Britons have long seen as part of their national identity remained solid.
A total of nine out of 10 respondents said the NHS should be “free of charge when you need it”, and more than eight out of 10 believed it should be available to everyone and primarily funded through taxes.
The Department of Health and Social Care said cutting waiting lists was one of Sunak’s five priorities. “We have virtually eliminated waits of over two years for treatment,” it said, adding: “The number of patients waiting over 18 months has reduced by 80 per cent from the peak.”
The NHS said there was no doubt that the health service “has been under sustained pressure in recent months which has impacted the experiences of patients”.
It added that it was “taking significant steps to further improve patient experience” and working on “new plans to boost primary care for patients as well as publishing a long-term workforce strategy shortly”.