Monday, April 22, 2024
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BBC Election Briefing 3 – Dodging the NHS debate


We continue our series looking at the BBC’s dumbed-down and fact-lite analysis of the general election.

WHILE we might reel at the cavalier insanity of the Labour Party’s manifesto, we surely can turn to the BBC to provide ballast with more meaningful probing of the nation’s challenges. This time we look at the BBC Election Explainer ‘What to look out for on the NHS’. 

The analysis is by Hugh Pym, the BBC health editor. With someone so senior tasked to prepare an election briefing you would expect to see some insightful analysis. We have an ageing population at the same time as burgeoning opportunities for medical interventions thanks  to technology advances. This mix means that the potential demand for NHS expenditure is limitless. (A costly new hip even though you might have only a year to live? Why not?) So how do we ration health provision? How do we decide who gets what? How can we manage demand, and contain costs, in a realistic and humane way that will make the NHS sustainable and put it on a sound footing for the long term? Let’s see what the BBC has to say.

Pym focuses on four issues: mental health, A&E, staffing, and social care. 

First, mental health. Pym says: ‘NHS leaders have promised that mental health spending will rise in line with the overall NHS budget . . . They say an extra 380,000 people a year will get access to talking therapies and there will be more resources for schools to support pupils.’ However, according to Pym, the NHS is already struggling. ‘Only three in ten children and young people with a mental health condition received NHS treatment.’ His suggestion? ‘Look out for what the political parties promise. How much is new money over and above what’s already been pledged and how much after accounting for inflation?’ Pym has hinted at the problem of rising demand. Did children have so many mental health problems in the past, and/or were they medicalised in this way? However, he doesn’t name it or address it. We’re just told to watch for the money being thrown at it.

Next, A&E: ‘The main concern for A&E is waiting times. Current government targets say 95 per cent of patients should be treated or assessed within four hours. But official figures show that this target hasn’t been met since 2015.’ Pym’s analysis? ‘Experts say funding and staff will help tackle waiting time.’ (I hope they weren’t paid too much for that insight.) ‘But they say watch out for big number spending promises in manifestos. What do they look like relative to increased demand?’ So once more an allusion to ever increasing unconstrained (just walk in!) demand.

On staffing, Pym says ‘there is currently a shortage of staff like nurses and doctors with around 100,000 vacancies across the NHS in England’. Also ‘Government figures show non-British nationals make up around 13 per cent of NHS staffing’.  So Pym wants us to look out for manifesto pledges not just on health but also on immigration. Fair enough. 

But here it comes. ‘Look out for pledges on staff numbers. Training can take several years and prove to be expensive.’ So that is another: focus on the spending promises.

Finally, social care. ‘Social care is funded through local councils which have seen budgets squeezed in England. Spending by local authorities on social care has fallen by 5 per cent over the last eight years though some extra central government money has been earmarked.’ Pym’s solution? ‘Manifestos need to address where future money for care will come from.’ Insight from the health editor of the BBC . . .

You will have noticed the pattern and the problem. It’s all spend, spend, spend. But at the end of his piece Pym finally allows himself a little honesty about the problems engulfing the NHS. ‘You may hear expressions like free personal care . . . an end to means testing, a cap on care costs . . . limiting how much families have to pay. The reality is that the NHS and social care are under huge pressure as the population ages. There are more, older patients with complex conditions, demand is rising faster than the resources available.’

Gosh! Why did Pym leave this till the end of his piece? Was he feeling a little bit guilty about the utter vacuousness of his spend, spend, spend analysis? Then, why leave it hanging in the air, with no attempt to address this true nature of the problem? What is his election briefing for, if not to make even the smallest attempt to address and tackle the hard questions?

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Caroline ffiske
Caroline ffiske
Caroline ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government, served two terms as a Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham and is currently a full-time mother. She tweets as @carolinefff

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