The NHS battleground

Phil Parry examines the battleground of the Welsh health service as the election in May approaches.

It is strange when the one area where there appears to be a lack of understanding about devolution, is the one area that made it fly – politics.

The health service will play a huge part in the coming general election, as has been shown this week with NHS England under scrutiny after 12 hospital A&E departments declared ‘major incidents’ due to capacity problems.

Yet this is, of course, a devolved issue for Wales.

Wales is the only part of Britain where Labour run the National Health Service (NHS), hence the Daily Mail’s controversial foray into the subject when they ran a series of articles, ostensibly to highlight that fact.

So you can be sure that all political parties will point to Wales as a ‘laboratory’ for how the UK’s health service could look under Labour – and they will use their own statistics to do it.

A recent opinion poll showed that only 34 per cent of those surveyed said the Welsh government has handled the NHS better than the UK government has handled it in England. (Although as a caveat it should also be noted that 34 per cent said they didn’t know!)

This shared the headlines with one screaming that Labour were already under attack over the performance of the NHS in Wales, compared with England.

The Welsh Conservatives said the report which spawned the performance results from the House of Commons research library, confirmed their ‘worst fears’ while the Liberal Democrats described the findings as ‘grim reading’.

We can all prepare ourselves for more shots on the TV news of ambulances backing up at hospitals, and generic operating theatre shots, because one wretched child could not get the surgery she needs.

Who now remembers the brief flurry of headlines during the 1992 general election campaign during ‘the war of Jennifer’s ear’ – a horrible allusion to an 18th century armed conflict ‘the war of Jenkins’ ear’ in which people actually died?

It gives a taste, perhaps, of the serious nature of these battles.

Just to fill you in – if this is not at the forefront of your mind – Jennifer was a five year old girl with glue ear and who waited, apparently, a year for the simple operation to insert vents or grommets.

The case was contrasted unfavourably, with the ability of those who were able to afford private treatment.

The then Labour leader Neil Kinnock used the slogan:  “If you want to vote Conservative, don’t fall ill.”

Unfortunately for his party the girl at the centre of it all happened to be the granddaughter of a Conservative party member.

The Sun newspaper, which famously put Mr Kinnock’s face in a light bulb on polling day with the headline “if Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”.

In the war of Jennifer’s ear, they ran the headline:  “If Kinnock will tell lies about a sick little girl, will he ever tell the truth about anything?”.

This is all a backdrop to the Conservatives seeing Wales as fertile area for their attack dogs.

Here last Autumn, 431,503 patients were waiting for treatment.

In England waiting times vary between hospitals, but there is a statutory right to treatment within 18 weeks, except in the cases of consultant-led mental health services and maternity.

In Wales the main focus is on ‘Referral to Treatment times’ with the ‘objective’ that all patients should receive their treatment within 26 weeks.

I have personal experience of the health service in Wales because I have Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP) which is a rare form of rheumatism and makes walking extremely difficult.

I have always found the service excellent – although my consultant cheerfully admitted there was virtually nothing he could do about it!

As the man who founded the NHS was Welsh (Nye Bevan) we have a special right to know the truth in this coming political debate.

Because, after all, another war of words and statistics about the state of our health service will benefit no one.

Least of all any little girls called Jennifer.

Phil Parry is Editor of the investigative website Wales Eye.

One thought on “The NHS battleground

  1. To clarify the history – the Jennifer’s ear incident was in 1992. The Labour Party never used the slogan “If you want to vote Conservative, don’t fall ill”; Kinnock made the comment “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.” in a speech at the 1983 general election, before he was Labour leader.

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