MPs urged to stop bickering over NHS crisis

Chilling: More patients in England are waiting over four hours for admission to hospital.

The UK’s health service is enduring the ‘worst’ period in its history. Politicians from across the divide are bitterly denouncing each other, but should they try working together instead?

The Red Cross calls it a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Doctors’ leaders say it is ‘the worst it has ever been’. Several professional bodies warn that lives are being put at avoidable risk.

Welcome to the latest winter crisis in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Record numbers of patients are facing long waits in A&E. Last week over 18,000 people languished on trolleys; others were treated with drips on chairs or left outside in queuing ambulances. Grim headlines have gripped the country.

Yesterday the two major party leaders, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, traded fierce words in Parliament. On Monday Labour accused Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, of ‘living in la la land’. But now three former health ministers from across the political divide have suggested a novel alternative: the parties should work together in a cross-party commission on the future of the NHS.

Is this worth trying? In recent years governments have introduced a series of structural reforms and hired more inspectors. But with muddled implementation and cuts in funding many of the NHS’s problems now seem to be getting worse.

And demographic trends are increasing the pressure. As the UK population ages, demand is rising and fewer working age people are paying the taxes that fund treatment. This suggests the country needs long-term solutions, made away from the heat of political battle.

But UK politics has an adversarial style, in which MPs face each other across the House of Commons. And the UK coalition government of 2010–15 was an anomaly; in most of continental Europe similar arrangements are common.

UK politicians also have stark ideological differences over healthcare provision. Labour has historically favoured state-led, national solutions and increasing spending. The Conservatives have advocated local solutions, patient choice and using private companies.

So when a similar commission was suggested in 2010, it quickly fell apart amid partisan rancour. Should the idea now be revived?

Unhealthy

Finally, say supporters, a plan for grown-ups. Politicians should put their petty differences aside and work together for the country’s good. Too often the NHS is used as a political football. Parties scramble for cheap headlines and doctors, nurses and patients become pawns in pointless squabbles. The public rightly holds this attitude in contempt.

That is undemocratic, cry sceptics. Only free, unconstrained argument and criticism from across the ideological spectrum holds power to account. This suggestion is just a sign of desperation from mainstream parties who are out of ideas. No wonder voters are turning to radical outsiders who paint all the political establishment as a cosy clique.

You Decide

  1. Is it better to find common ground with those you disagree with, or try to prove them wrong?
  2. Should politicians work together to solve the NHS’s problems?

Activities

  1. Work in teams of three. Think of a problem you care about in society. Try to draw up a list of five things you would do about it. Then discuss if working as a group helped you.
  2. Create a one-page fact file about your country’s healthcare system. Then find out one interesting suggestion which has been made to improve it. Write a page explaining why you think it would or would not work.

Some People Say...

“Politicians should try to disagree with each other.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m still very young — I don’t go to hospital often. Why should I worry?
Illness or injury can strike at any time. And people you care about, particularly elderly relatives, probably care a lot about the NHS. This is also about the people who spend money and make decisions on your behalf: would you prefer that they worked together or argued vigorously against one another? That does not just affect healthcare policy.
But I’m not British — I don’t use the NHS.
This issue is relevant around the world. In the USA, for example, there are regular debates over how much the two major parties should cooperate with each other. In Europe, different parties often have to find common ground to form coalitions. And similar debates may take place away from politics, for example in your future workplaces.

Word Watch

18,000
According to the NHS.
Three
Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat MP, proposed the idea. Alan Milburn of Labour and Stephen Dorrell, the Conservative chair of the NHS Confederation, supported him.
Reforms
Most recently the Health and Social Care Act was introduced in 2012, reorganising the NHS. This, and other reforms which preceded it, increased competition and patient choice.
Cuts
The UK is spending more money but a smaller proportion of its national wealth (GDP) on healthcare. Cuts to social care funding have also strained the NHS.
Worse
Stories of problems in the NHS are not confined to winter. For example, over 1,000 patients died of hunger or thirst in NHS hospitals in 2015.
Face
The government sits opposite the other parties in the Westminster Parliament — metaphorically suggesting they should see each other as opponents. This contrasts with parliaments in much of Europe, Scotland and the US Congress, where representatives sit in the round.
Coalition
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats governed together, but the UK is usually governed by one party with a majority in the House of Commons.

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