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.

9 thoughts on “NHS Wales: safe in Labour’s hands?

  1. Have a heart ! I think you will find the WG ‘Good news team’ is probably working very hard to bring positive health related information into the public domain in the next 9 months. Imagine, we might find that the long awaited mega hospital in Cwmbran (SCCC) decision is conveniently approved in the New Year. They might also be able to keep attention away from the politically unpalatable fact that spiralling amounts of cash are haemorrhaging out of Wales to private healthcare providers based in England as Trusts struggle to try and meet targets. If you are forced to take that path wouldn’t it be more sensible if the money stayed in Wales creating skilled local healthcare jobs with wages to be spent within the local economy ??

  2. There has NEVER been a service that has open access as a principle,and a supply that is constrained by availability of public finance that has survived. We should move to a ‘system’ of personal insurance,topped up by public funds otherwise it must collapse in next 10 years.It is interesting that the ‘scandal’ over treatment of elderly people at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend has resulted in a few nurses being ‘put to the wall’,whilst the a)management,b)political establishment etc etc have seemingly escaped scot free.Can you imagine if the scandal at very many hospitals had occurred under the control of a Conservative government,and the howls of anguish from welsh LLAFUR and the NATS about the need to get services under welsh control!!

  3. Now how about some of the facts about things on which Wales does better than England. There are several. Perhaps Public Health Wales could publish a list which we can publicise and promote.And I understand that the England cancer drugs fund has turned out to be a (hugely overspent) disaster – and there are even some drugs that are available in Wales that are not available in England.
    But this kind of tit for tat does nobody any good. Comparisons across the UK countries have been shown to be unhelpful. We need to get on with the job in hand – to improve care for all of us wherever we live!
    June Clark

  4. June, how can comparisons between UK healthcare services be unhelpful?. Unhelpful to who? How is it possible to make any assessment of quality, efficiency or value for money without making comparisons? Granted that the necessary data is being collected in ever more divergent forms but one must wonder why that is happening.

    The original article calls for less political involvement. I doubt that is possible but I sympathise with the call. Many if not most politicians regard the ideology involved in health provision as more important that the health outcome. The primary question to them is; how pure is our NHS, rather than how good is it.

  5. Little to disagree with Lia in her observations of Welsh NHS failings but is missing one aspect which is never talked about – The Welsh Language.

    As a Public Service Welsh NHS is obliged through Welsh Government’s compulsion to provide bilingual services but no one dares question if such a stance is practical and reasonable and above all what implications these measures have on quality of staff employed by Welsh NHS where Welsh language skills often come before the competence.

    This aspect is especially visible in Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board which stands out in this respect above all other Welsh Health Boards for now and to my understanding had a direct implication on the shameful situation and events surrounding the Tawel Fan scandal, inability to recruit neonatal and maternity specialists for Glan Clwyd and elsewhere or even GP’s for the primary health care of communities in their domain.

    This situation is going to get worse until someone in the Welsh political circles has a courage to stand up to Social Engineering of Wales and say Enough is Enough – Support Welsh language by practical and reasonable measures but do not strangle the nation through the ill thought legislation that resembles an Orwellian World which is taking Wales to nowhere!

  6. “One aspect that is never talked about – the Welsh language”

    Oh the irony of that observation in the comments section of an article on Clickonwales

  7. NHS in Cymru can’t even get my address right! Royal Mail are more use – they write on the envelope and deliver the stuff anyway! Half of it is nearly always waste paper and wasted ink. Guess which half? There isn’t a prize BTW, it’s too easy… I wonder if the Royal Mail do surgery?

    Beyond my GP I have ZERO faith in them and my GP is obviously working with at least one hand tied behind his back.

    Of course, here in Gwynedd the hospital isn’t even a Hospital – it sounds like some kind of sandwich shop??? But it has got a Welsh Language Officer, on god knows how much a year, to make sure all the paperwork and all the signs are as wasteful and as difficult as possible to understand! Even the name of the health trust is as difficult to spell as possible. I can’t even be bothered trying! And people wonder why they can’t fill posts?

    I wonder how much money the NHS in Cymru could save every year if it just recorded our language preference and sent stuff out in one language? If that’s beyond the wit of the NHS in Cymru I really don’t want them cutting me open!

  8. @June Clark
    With respect, this is not about making comparisons with England or about identifying where Wales does better than England. This is really about the kind of health care Welsh people get and what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure it is of a good quality.

  9. Brill observation Daren but perhaps the context of the highlighted comment has escaped you. In case of anyone else who might have a similar problem – Consider the following (An extract from Welsh Government’s DIRECTIVE to Welsh NHS and other Public Services:

    “Public services in Wales are committed to providing citizen centred
    services. Health, social services and social care focus on caring for people
    as individuals, placing the user at the centre of care. Many people can only
    communicate and participate in their care as equal partners effectively
    through the medium of Welsh. Service providers have a responsibility to
    meet these care needs”

    There are four good reasons for getting this right:

    Improving the quality of care – it is important to recognise the concept
    of language need. For many Welsh speakers, language is an integral
    element of their care e.g. some people with dementia, or who have
    suffered a stroke, and children under the age of five.

    Maintaining professional standards – numerous professional standards in
    health and social care list effective communication as a key requirement
    and highlight the need to maintain respect and dignity

    Meeting the language need of users – organisations have a responsibility
    to recognise and accept responsibility to respond to language need as an
    integral element of care. In the strategic framework we refer to this as
    the “Active Offer”

    Comply with legal and statutory requirements – organisations in the
    public sector have a responsibility to comply with the new Welsh
    Language (Wales) Measure. This will create standards regarding Welsh,
    which will result in rights being established that will ensure Welsh
    speakers can receive services in Welsh.

    Is any of the above ‘Practical & Reasonable’ Daren in a ‘nation’ that only has circa 6% of fluent Welsh speakers? Only some 5,000 households returned Census 2011 forms in Welsh?

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