Monday, April 24, 2006

Patricia in Wonderland

So Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt says that the NHS is having its “best year ever.” Anyone who believes that should be a customer of the health service, not running it.

Staff, patients and friends of all the community hospitals in Cumbria, and all the rest of the EIGHTY threatened Community hospitals, may wonder what planet Patricia Hewitt is living on. So will the thousands of people in Cumbria and tens of thousands across the country who have lost their NHS dental place and can’t get another.

I don’t think the 6,000 people whose jobs in the NHS have gone, or another 7,000 NHS staff whose jobs are currently at risk, will agree that the NHS is having its best year ever. Neither will women of childbearing age in West Cumbria, or most of the midwives and other staff working in the maternity unit at West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, where there is a possibility that part of the service may move to Carlisle, forcing about 1,000 women a year to travel up to 50 miles to give birth.

Nor will the patients who were due to have one of the 43,350 operations cancelled so far this year for “non-clinical reasons.”

As Beverly Malone of the Royal College of Nursing says, the picture presented by the Health Secretary is not one which front line health workers will recognise.

If this latest boast from the Secretary of State for health is just a piece of propaganda and “spin” ahead of the local elections in many parts of England, then she is insulting the intelligence of voters in those areas. If she is so delusional that she actually believes this rubbish, perhaps she should check into one of the remaining Mental Health support wards which she hasn’t closed.

Sadly this is all of a piece with the way New Labour treats the NHS. They were elected promising “24 hours to save the NHS” but then for the next few years spent less on front line medical services than the previous Conservative government had. Then the policy changed and vast sums were thrown at the service, but for every new doctor or nurse taken on with all the extra money they employed several new bureaucrats to run their 400 NHS targets, and ever more complex reorganisations of the service. The health service how has more administrative and estates staff than beds. Blair’s latest proposed reforms amount to recreating under another name the Fund Holding GP system first set up by John Major – after nine years they’re back with the position they inherited from the Conservatives.

Meanwhile Labour parrot ludicrous claims about how hospitals are safe, only Labour is committed to the NHS, and any other party would destroy it. Anyone who points out the problems which exist is misrepresented as attacking our hard-working doctors and nurses instead of Labour’s incompetent management. In one case a ninety-year old patient who complained about a problem with her treatment was smeared as a racist. Often Labour propaganda is the exact reverse of the truth.

At the last election in Copeland, the number one issue on which I campaigned was to defend and improve local hospital services. Meanwhile the Labour candidate, and Labour Chief Whip Hilary “I need an abacus” Armstrong were reassuring voters in West Cumbria that there was no threat whatsoever to West Cumberland Hospital.

Not long after the election it became completely obvious that people like myself who were saying we need to fight for local hospitals were right and the Labour MP for Copeland had been elected on the basis of false assurances about the local health service. Did he show the least humility over this? Far from it. One of the very few speeches he has made in the House of Commons included the ridiculous allegation that I had campaigned to cut spending on local hospitals. This was an abuse of parliamentary privilege.

Even when the government gets a good idea they sometimes implement it very badly. I entirely agree with the principle that reducing our dependence on overseas medical staff is not just in Britain’s interests, but also in the interests of the other countries, often far poorer than Britain, whose best doctors and nurses we have taken away. However, any change must be implemented in a way which is fair to the overseas doctors and nurses who are here at the moment - any civilised country should recognise that we owe them for helping us through a difficult period. Proposed new rules which may have the effect of sending home junior doctors from overseas before they have finished their training are an absolute disgrace. Apart from the moral aspects, how do we expect to recruit medical staff from overseas next time we have a skill shortage if we treat people like this ?

No party has a monopoly of concern for the health service, or of positive ideas to improve it. But it is no criticism of the hard-working doctors, nurses and staff who regularly work miracles to keep the NHS going to say that we need to put the service on a more secure basis.

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