Health service crisis may be Tories’ opportunity

Once applauded, the NHS is being held to account for some appalling care

Protesters from the ‘National Health Action Party’ lead a mock funeral procession for the NHS along Whitehall on July 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Protesters from the ‘National Health Action Party’ lead a mock funeral procession for the NHS along Whitehall on July 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Wed, Jul 17, 2013, 01:00

Once described by the Conservatives’ Nigel Lawson as the closest thing the British have “to a religion”, the National Health Service has long been the subject that British politicians tackled at their peril. Usually, they did not.

During Labour’s years, tens of billions were spent annually, operation numbers escalated, public satisfaction – always a fickle creature – ran so high it could be included as a symbol of the UK in last year’s Olympics.

Today, however, the narrative has changed. An investigation into Staffordshire hospitals showed several thousand had died because of appalling care, much of it almost gratuitously offensive. A few patients even had to resort to drinking water from vases.

The news has got even worse. Whistleblowers in the NHS faced orchestrated intimidation to keep quiet, it seems, while yesterday’s Keogh report found a new list of failings. Significantly, these are serious failings that NHS managers failed to do anything about, and for which they were not prompted by their political masters to address. The NHS is a curate’s egg: cardiac surgery is superb, particularly since surgical records began to be published a decade ago, while cancer survival rates lag behind European averages, though they are improving.

Despite Conservatives’ arguments that the entire edifice is unaffordable, the UK spends less of its national income on health than France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada or New Zealand, or the United States – even before private medicine is considered.

However, the standard of nursing care – often the most visible part of a hospital for most patients, and relatives – can sometimes be dreadful, where poor communication and dismissive attitudes are far too common.

The NHS has previously refused to own up to its sins. Now it is finding that its sins are being exploited by Conservatives who no longer believe – if they ever did – in its 65-year-old dictum that it should be “free at the point of entry”, even if that is no longer true for all things.

While not slow to point out the NHS’s failings, Bruce Keogh, its medical director in England, offered this thought: “Between 2000 and 2008, the NHS was rightly focused on rebuilding capacity and improving access after decades of neglect. The key issue was not whether people were dying in our hospitals avoidably, but that they were dying whilst waiting for treatment.”

Such words were ignored by Jeremy Hunt yesterday, and they will remain ignored.

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