HMS Make My May should not scupper a depoliticiseation of the NHS

12 Jan 2017 at 18:45

There is nothing particularly new in the NHS winter crisis meltdown. In the early eighties there were no hospital budgets nor targets. Regional health authorities were given a load of cash from the government who then gave it to district health authorities who then distributed amongst hospitals. By September klaxons began blaring, red lights flashing as hospitals realised that they would soon run out of cash. The Christmas crisis was on its way. So backbenchers would lead delegations to ministers with the begging bowl. The argument would always be that NHS inflation was higher than normal inflation, that elderly people were blocking beds, that there was a lot of waste. We were always given some more cash, but not enough. ‘Too little to late’, Labour would scream. And we would loyally parrot that there were more doctors and nurses than ever before and that we were cutting waste and managers. Things improved a bit under major. Still more doctors and nurses than ever before. Still not enough money to meet demand, still the elderly were blocking beds and there was a new phenomenon. Bottomley beds. People dumped on trolleys because of lack of beds. Labour gave us a ‘twenty five days to save the NHS’ election and they swept into power. In the early days they poured money into the system. But……it was not enough to meet demand. Labour loyalists took over from us chanting that there are more doctors and nurses than ever before etc.

The truth is that there will never be enough money to meet demand. And the crisis will get worse. The NHS as we know it is flatlining. In a few years, unless there is radical reform, it will die a horrible death.

Sadly, the Number 10 approach is to shoot the messengers or rather the off messagers. Submarine May has upped periscope and doesn’t like what she sees. She certainly doesn’t like the cut of Simon Stevens’s jib. So true to form HMS Make my May has plunged back to the depths to reload her torpedo tubes. You’ll be surprised to learn that the government line is more doctors and nurses, cutting waste, sacking managers. But with one particular Mayan spin, ‘the NHS has been given more money than it asked for, get on with it’. Everyone knows that this is manifest bollocks but is treasonable so say anything else. The last health secretary to boast to a Prime Minister that money is not the problem was dear old John Moore. The strain of this serious error of judgment nearly killed him. The NHS is not like any other government department. It is a sacred and mystical entity in the eyes of the public. To radically reform it would be seen as tantamount to slaughtering Peppa Pig and turning her into bacon butties. But the winds of change will have to blow away the cobwebs of system that can no longer effectively function.

All the health secretaries I have known over the year have been decent men and women. And I go back to Norman Fowler. I’ve never met Hunt, but he is no different. He is doing his best in impossible circumstances. He like the rest, is a good guy.

May does have a get out of jail card. There is a growing view from all parties that we have to take the politics out of healthcare. It is the only way. But will she and Corbyn have the courage to do it? Because what needs to happen is a commission with a clean sheet of paper to look at all the options. And I mean all of them. However, there must be two principles set in stone. Healthcare must to open to all and free at the point of delivery. Nobody should have the terror of having to pay for their or their families’ healthcare.

And after the commission has reached its conclusions there is no reason why the Department of Health cannot be depoliticised. Why not have the Secretary of State from the governing party with two ministers of state from the other parties? The health of our people is far to important to be left to grubby and meaningless party slogans sniffing for cheap votes. This is the only way to avoid a real humanitarian crisis. Norman Lamb could be the midwife to a mould breaking idea. I just hope that politicians have to courage not to take him to the slaughter