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Kathy Gyngell: An emperor with no clothes. How many more NHS scandals before it is reformed?


On Sunday morning I was shocked to read that David Burrowes, the MP for Enfield Southgate, could have died at the hands of ‘our’ catastrophic National Health Service.   The story was shocking in itself but also because I know him.  I worked with him when he was a new MP on Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice Policy Review.   I came to respect him for his ability and to like him for his principles.  He is as good and caring  a family man as you could hope to meet.

I read he’d been rushed to hospital with a ruptured appendix at 5.30 in the morning to find himself spending the next 12 hours on a trolley writhing in agony, untreated and waiting fruitlessly for a CT scan. Why? Staff had forgotten to register him in the overcrowded and chaotic A&E of North Middlesex Hospital.

It is an ironic aside that his campaign to keep a smaller A&E open in his constituency (which, at the time, had the backing of David Cameron) had fallen foul of his colleague Andrew Lansley a few years previously.

However, to return to the main story, he was left first in ‘cupboard cubicle’ and then on a trolley in a corridor for a further 7 hours (on top of the original 12)  before the staff got round to diagnosing him. Yes, this is Britain not Africa or India we are talking about.

But for David thankfully living to tell the tale and being an MP, this saga of third world service and grotesque incompetence would not have hit the headlines.  Many more cases go unreported – even where people die as a result of bungling and mismanagement.

This time the truth got out. Whether it will make any difference to the magic political ring that guards this ghastly institution against complaint and fundamental reform is another question.

Will it jolt his colleagues out of the sentimental delusion that the National Health Service is a national treasure?  Will it temper the propaganda that itself is a major barrier to reforming the health service,  to getting a value for money service?

I rather doubt it.  MP Ann Clwyd’s heartrending  complaints about her dying husband’s crass and uncaring treatment appear to have fallen on stony ground, resisted and denied by the NHS authorities.  The devastating catalogue of cruelty and ineptitude in QC Robert Francis’s Stafford Hospital scandal enquiry report has now passed into the the mists of time.  The British public appears desensitised by disaster.

And none of the successive hospital horrors, from Bristol to Liverpool, seems to puncture politicians’ certitude that the NHS is an unmitigated good thing.   Barely five months after the Stafford Report, the Prime Minister was serving out a dish of platitudes to mark the NHS’s 65th anniversary a year ago.

It was a prime opportunity to burst the bubble around this so called ‘free at the point of delivery’ service.  A mantra which, at a cost of £109 billion pounds a year to the British taxpayer, disguises the biggest political  lie of our time.  In no other OECD country does the taxpayer foot such a high proportion of the health service bill – 81 per cent  – for no choice and poor care.

Mr Cameron might have pointed out that employing more than 1.7 million people, less than half of whom are clinically qualified, is hardly a  source of  pride. He could have sternly questioned the ethos of an organisation that boasts, on its own website, that only the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Wal-Mart supermarket chain and Indian Railways directly employ more people.

But no. Mr Cameron was keen, as all Prime Ministers have been before him, to endorse what he thinks people believe or want to believe about the NHS, whatever the cancer at its core. And he has to be believer number one. Hence his sanctimonious and clichéd message that, “Our National Health Service is one of the most precious institutions we have. We all know it, because all of us have been touched by it.”

Well, I wonder if that was what David Burrowes’s wife was thinking as her husband lay ignored in A&E in his agony. I cannot imagine it felt too precious to her during that appalling 24 hours.

Until we stop treating the NHS as a religion, there is no chance of proper health reform.

But it is hard to see what it will take to make politicians and the public snap. How many more hospital scandals will it take before a Prime Minister or Secretary of State for Health finally admits that the National Health Emperor is wearing no clothes?

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Kathy Gyngell
Kathy Gyngell
Kathy is Editor of The Conservative Woman. She is @kathygyngelltcw on GETTR and is back on Twitter.

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