The offer of free car parking for National Health Service staff has roiled Britain’s health establishment as its hospital system becomes increasing dependent on car access, favouring people with motor vehicles and discriminating against those without.
The prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) has weighed in with an editorial describing the policy as ‘forced car ownership'.
The NHS announced free car parking for staff during the COVID-19 pandemic to ease the financial burden on low paid health care workers.
But in the UK, as in many places, many medical staff routinely ride bikes, walk or take public transport to hospitals. And they are much healthier for it.
However as bigger, modern hospitals continue to be developed, humongous car parks come with them. So big that road networks around them need redesign and getting to them on foot or bike becomes more difficult.
The BMJ argues that the real injustice is not that health workers have to pay parking fees, but that low income workers are forced to buy a car to get to work.
"Research shows that for low income groups, the costs of owning, maintaining, and running a car often results in deprivation in other areas of their lives—such as fuel poverty, food poverty, and participation in social activities,” the BMJ said.
"Considering the existing financial precarities among low income health professionals (NHS staff are top of the list in accessing payday loans), forced car ownership is an additional financial burden.
"Public objections to the cost of hospital car parking also don’t account for the environmental consequences of private vehicle commuting and its wider public health implications.”
The BMJ said that air-pollution is the biggest environmental health risk across Europe with attributable deaths including heart disease, stroke, lung disease and lung cancer.
UK research also suggests an association between traffic related air pollution and the number of adult cardiovascular and paediatric respiratory hospital admissions.
And many UK hospitals are in areas which exceed safe and legal limits of fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
"Using free or cheap parking to (inequitably) reward NHS staff applauds the notion that the everyday running of NHS hospitals should be achieved through the sacrifice(ing) of staff.
"It also reinforces the unsustainable increase in private car use and the associated negative environmental and physical health sequelae. Subsidised parking removes the natural market drivers that should force alternative solutions to be explored.
"A new paradigm is needed. We should work towards a health service where those who care are also cared for, while simultaneously modelling healthy, environmentally friendly behaviours.
"Free staff parking is not caring. It creates poverty through forced car ownership, it stresses hospital parking facilities that are already at capacity, and it promotes polluting behaviour—with the ensuing economic and health consequences,” the BMJ said.
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