NHS Wales: the threat of a good example
By Darren WilliamsIt is clear that Welsh public services – and especially the NHS – will be a key battleground in the next UK general election, as Westminster Tory politicians invoke the supposed shortcomings of the Welsh model in an attempt to justify their own ‘reforms’.
While English health care is increasingly fractured, marketised and handed over to the private sector, devolution has allowed Wales to restore the NHS to its original Bevanite vision, albeit in an updated form. Even before the UK coalition took office, Welsh Labour was following a very different approach from Westminster – abolishing the internal market introduced by the Major government, rejecting PFI, foundation hospital and independent sector treatment centres and scrapping prescription charges.
The Tories are therefore desperate to be able to rubbish Wales’ service delivery. Writing in The Spectator, Bristol Tory MP Charlotte Leslie described Wales as ‘a Labourite utopia of state supremacy with none of the so-called evils of alternative providers getting in the way of the tight grip of the state’. And the Tory chairman Grant Shapps told the Western Mail that service failures in Wales would be help up to warn people elsewhere the UK what would happen if Ed Miliband were to enter Downing Street.
Jeremy Hunt recently told Parliament that there had been a 10% increase in Welsh patients attending English A&E departments since 2010, suggesting that Welsh service failures were putting greater pressure on the NHS in England. The Welsh Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, pointed out on the Today programme, however, that attendances at A&E had increased by 11% across the country over the same period and it would be nonsensical to attribute increases in Newcastle or Nottingham to Welsh patients. Moreover there had been a 10% increase by English patients at Welsh A&E units, reflecting simply the ‘long and porous border’ between the two countries.
The Tories have also made much of an email sent last December by the English Chief Medical Officer, Sir Bruce Keogh, to the deputy chief medical officer in Wales, saying that he had given data that suggested there may be grounds for concern about mortality rates at certain Welsh hospitals. The email had been obtained by Charlotte Leslie and formed the basis of hostile coverage in the Telegraph, Mail and Express. In the face of such a concerted campaign – ‘a cynical, deliberate’ attempt ‘to drag the reputation of the Welsh NHS through the mud for nakedly political purposes’ in Mark Drakeford’s words – the Welsh minister has patiently attempted to point out that Keogh’s email did not give his personal view as to the seriousness or otherwise of Welsh mortality rates, and that the UK Statistics Authority has advised that the available data do not provide for safe comparisons between the countries of the UK.
The Tories’ relentless attack has also drowned out the many facts that show the Welsh NHS in a more favourable light. For example, waiting times for cancer patients are much shorter in Wales than in England, the experience of cancer patients is better, delayed transfers of care are at a ten-year low and Wales’ cardiac survival times top the European league.
The Welsh NHS is, of course, far from perfect, as Drakeford is quick to acknowledge – and it faces growing challenges as a result of the UK government cuts. But, even in such difficult times, Wales continues to lead the way with legislation introducing a life-saving system of presumed consent for organ donation; obliging restaurants and takeaways to display prominently their food hygiene ratings; and seeking to recover treatment costs from companies that have exposed their workers to asbestos (the latter is being considered by the Supreme Court after being challenged by the insurance industry).
Unfortunately, Labour in Westminster is sometimes slow to defend Wales’ record, and the Cynon Valley MP Ann Clwyd, has, in effect, a become a mouthpiece for Tory attacks, after her concerns over her dying husband’s treatment in a Cardiff hospital led to her appointment by Cameron to advise on the handling of complaints.
Whatever its faults, the NHS in Wales represents the demonstrably fair and viable alternative to the privatised Tory model and, as such, it should be defended by socialists.
This article first appeared in Labour Briefing magazine.