The NHS; a political football?

Image: Ian Pattinson

Image: Ian Pattinson

Labour leader Ed Miliband has been accused of “wriggling like an eel” for apparently saying that he would “weaponise” the NHS for the oncoming elections. David Cameron’s criticism comes as the NHS struggles under what has been described as a “winter crisis”, with record numbers of patients both in situ at hospitals and visiting Accident and Emergency. Hospitals in Surrey, Staffordshire, North Yorkshire, Gloucester and Cheltenham have declared major incidents recently, meaning that they have been forced to reduce patient intake, send non-critical cases home and generally reduce strain in order to cope with genuine emergencies.

The Daily Telegraph was the first to report that Mr Miliband had declared that he intended to use the NHS as a weapon against the Conservatives in the general election- the statement apparently came at a meeting with BBC executives. The criticisms that have resulted from the recent news include an attack on what Conservatives have called a “deeply cynical” attitude to a vital service. Labour sources have refused to comment on precise wording, opting instead to declare that they are fighting for the future of the health service.

Labour has attracted heavy criticism over its stance on the NHS recently, when Scottish Labour head Jim Murphy pledged to use mansion tax proceeds from the South of England recently to fund 1000 extra nurses for the Scottish NHS. The plans were attacked as grossly unfair, while the fact that Murphy declared that he had not consulted Mr Miliband but that he was certain of support proved embarrassing.

That the NHS is facing a highly difficult period is in no doubt. The sheer quantity of hospitals bowing under pressure on both staff and simple resources is astounding. Ambulances were apparently turned away from hospitals 58 times over the Christmas period, due to the deepening difficulty of treating the numbers of people who arrive at Accident and Emergency departments. The number of people seen within four hours of arrival at A&E has fallen from 95% to 87%, while 20 cancer drugs may no longer be offered by the NHS due simply to their cost.

That Labour could make significant capital out of these problems is indubitable. This weakness is likely part of the reason for the vehement Conservative condemnation of any intent to use the NHS as a political football. For all that the government has publicised the hiring of hundreds of doctors and thousands of nurses to deal with winter, accusations that money has still yet to reach frontline departments are bound to sting, especially as emergencies are becoming less and less treatable. Moreover, the A&E crisis has been blamed in part on unavailable GPs and lacking out-of-hours services, which Labour are likely to lay at the door of their  political adversaries come the general election.

A recent criticism of the 111 health helpline spearheaded by the government has also proven embarrassing- the more so since it was delivered by Cliff Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine. Dr Mann blamed the “absurd” phone service for directing almost all extra patients to A&E departments, while an NHS spokesman said that 30% of A&E users at Gloucester Royal and Cheltenham General hospitals had “non-urgent ailments”.

Labour also criticises the Conservatives for their perceived attempts at opening the NHS up to privatisation. While a valid concern (former Coalition Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s office was given £21,000 by a private healthcare provider’s CEO), Labour themselves run the risk here of being reminded that they arguably opened the door to private involvement in the NHS. Furthermore, Labour’s spearheading of Private Finance Initiatives, in which private bodies bankrolled expensive public works for repayment at huge interest rates, while effective immediately, seems set to remove even more money from the government than the projects might if constructed with public funds.

The deputy chair of the British Medical Association in Scotland recently pleaded for a consultation on the future of the NHS, rather than for it to be used as a political football. For all the political consensus on the need for the NHS, that seems to be a vain hope.

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