NHS Wales: safe in Labour’s hands?

Lia Hind argues that the valid debate around healthcare in Wales has been derailed by politics and politicians.

When Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage in Brighton last week and proceeded to urge activists to “defend” Labour’s record on the NHS in Wales, I couldn’t help but imagine there were a fair few uncomfortable squirms amongst Welsh delegates. Because whilst it may have seemed rather poignant for Corbyn to relay his ‘visit to Aneurin Bevan Stones’ anecdote, for many living the devolved dream, the realities of the Welsh NHS aren’t always so easily defensible.

Because in Wales, barely a week goes by without the airing of some damning report ranging from missed targets to care failings to at its worst, institutional abuse. And all the while we’ve witnessed politicians and health bosses throw their hands in the air and plead ignorance. Because that is what it seems like to many. That they really do have evading responsibility down to an art form.

When David Cameron passed his now infamous comment that the line between Offa’s Dyke was the line between life and death, Labour Ministers hopped around like banshees on hot coals screeching that the Tories were waging war on Wales and therefore on our beloved doctors and nurses. No ministers. They weren’t attacking doctors and nurses. They were attacking you! You, the politicians elected into positions that set the narrative, set the budgets, set the targets (most of which have never been met, but we’ll come to that later) and of course, ultimately, take the flack.

But that’s not something the Welsh Government is very good at doing. Taking the flack that is. It seems an inherent part of our devolved government’s behaviour these days to rebuke any kind of criticism as simply a politically motivated act aimed to undermine their agenda even, it seems, when that criticism is based on factual evidence and, ultimately, echoed by their own electorate.

Whilst I’m not saying I endorse Mr Cameron’s ‘Offas Dyke’ analogy, I am, however, pointing out that for some cancer patients and their families in Wales, this is how many are left feeling.

With Labour leaders refusing to set up a specialist cancer drugs fund similar to the one already in existence in England, we’ve witnessed numerous Welsh patients highlighting their pleas with some so desperate to secure, in many cases, life-saving treatment that they are forced to move across the border into England.

Andrew Wilson-Webb of the Rarer Cancers Foundation revealed how a seriously-ill man who had waited more than three months for innovative treatment had moved from Wales to Bristol and received the drugs just three days later.

When mother-of-two Carolyn Davies, 47, of Cwmbran was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer, she was forced to raise £69,000 herself for a treatment denied to her by the Welsh NHS, yet available to patients in England.

There was fury amongst campaigners when a newspaper revealed how a former Welsh NHS chief had herself moved to England to secure a specific form of breast cancer treatment that she had only a few months beforehand been forced to deny to Welsh patients.

For Ann Wilkinson of Usk, a cancer patient denied specialist treatment by the Welsh NHS, it must have been galling to witness her friend, Julie McGowan, deliver a 100,000 signature petition to the steps of the Senedd, only to have Welsh Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, frivolously impart that he had “no intention” of setting up a cancer fund.

Let’s now touch briefly on the Welsh Government’s record on meeting targets.

At the beginning of 2015, the Welsh Ambulance Service recorded its worst set of emergency response figures in its history. Just 42.6% of emergency calls met the eight-minute target set by the Welsh Government. The target of 65% was barely ever met since its introduction and whilst it did see improvement throughout 2015 it still didn’t meet its target in almost two years. So in order to remedy this embarrassing predicament they have simply decided to scrap the target system all together as of October 2015. Instead, they will focus on patient outcomes over response times…apparently?!

More shocking, was the Tawel Fan scandal. It was only after relatives of the patients – who had repeatedly flagged up concerns to health bosses only to be ignored – were able to expose the true scale of abuse that had taken place on the dementia ward at Glan Clywd Hospital, that anyone in power actually stepped in.

Labour ministers responded by placing Betsi Cadwaladyr Health Board into special measures, but to many, this was long over-due and further reinforced perception that Welsh Labour’s lackadaisical ‘after the fact’ style of governance was becoming all too prevalent in devolved portfolios.

Take the way in which they handled the downgrading of maternity services in North Wales. When BCHB took it upon themselves to announce, without warning or public consultation that they were suspending consultant-led maternity services at Glan Clywd, Welsh ministers again deemed this a wholly acceptable approach.

Thankfully, not everyone accepts the Welsh Labour-style of governance as democratically sound, and after campaigners launched and won a legal appeal against the decision, a judge ruled that a proper consultation should be implemented. Again, Welsh ministers and BCHB bosses had egg on their faces, but their ability to brush off this kind of public shaming has been well honed through years of experience.

It was in the aftermath of May’s General Election, that we were to witness the true extent of just how bitter the relationship between North Wales and the Welsh Labour Government had become when the scalp of Labour’s Vale of Clywd MP, Chris Ruane, was taken, in what many believe was retaliation to the behaviour in Cardiff Bay. Ruane had held the seat for 18 years and was held in such high regard locally, that no one saw it coming. Perhaps, that is, except the Welsh Conservatives, who having effectively championed the plight of campaigners, had managed to tap into a disgruntled chunk of the electorate and gain the seat.

With an Assembly Election looming, Welsh Labour Ministers would do well to reflect on such events and stop projecting, dare I say it, such imperious attitudes towards their critiques and refrain from habitually deflecting genuine and very real concerns about their ‘record’ in handling the Welsh NHS as merely, what is it you call it? Oh yes “party-politically motivated attacks”!

Lia Hind is a former journalist based in north Wales.

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