Dean Russell: As a volunteer in my local hospital, I saw at first hand the damage done by NHS fearmongering

1 Sep

Dean Russell is the MP for Watford and a member of the Health & Social Care Select Committee.

Concurrent with Matt Hancock’s recent announcement about the creation of the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) came the usual reactionary political cries that this means the NHS is under threat of privatisation.

The sad truth is that whilst politicians are repeating old myths like a broken record, they once again fail to look at the actual record of the NHS under the Conservatives since its inception in 1948; in doing so, they are causing genuine distress to those who are most vulnerable.

I understand that old habits die hard when it comes to political fearmongering; however, in the efforts to win votes through these repeated false claims, they are only hurting the very people they claim to protect – health and social care workers.

The problem with these entrenched and unfounded claims around NHS privatisation is that politicians make it difficult to be open about where issues exist within these large institutions, which, in turn, means that front line staff are the worst hit.

Just this week, I was fortunate to spend a day with St John Ambulance and meet hospital staff who they had been volunteering alongside during the crisis. They all made the point that that pre-Covid the levels of red tape and bureaucracy needed to enable St John Ambulance to help volunteer on wards would have been too immense ever to see it happen.

The nature of the Covid crisis enabled the NHS to be allowed to utilise the assets that an organisation like St John Ambulance teams can provide. This additional workforce during such an unprecedented crisis has provided invaluable support to NHS staff. I am confident if any Conservative politician had tried to suggest this last year, they would have been lambasted for attempting to undermine NHS staff or for putting the UK on a “slippery slope” towards privatisation.

Since March, I have volunteered with my local hospital – something I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to do as it enabled me to support the frontline in action.

What struck me at the height of the crisis was how impacted NHS staff were by some sections of the media and those who engaged in baseless NHS political point-scoring. When the news was reporting the country was running out of PPE, despite the fact my local hospital had stock, I could hear the concern in the voices of some staff that they thought they were about to run out imminently.

Like the rest of the country, NHS staff, too, are watching the news day after day. When they hear a constant flow of the absolute worst-case scenarios presented as the norm, it understandably affects their anxiety levels.

Whilst the NHS has been presented with challenges it had never faced before, the unhealthy obsession with scaremongering poses a threat to NHS employees mental health and the morale of the nation.

Our NHS is the most prized possession in the Government’s arsenal, and it has become a proud cultural symbol for Britain. The uncorroborated and alarmist claims by part of the media and fed by some politicians deny honest and nuanced debate about the issues facing the NHS and social care both during Covid and looking long-term.

One of the many reasons I am proud to be a new MP as part of the 2019 intake is because of our Party’s renewed focus on health social care. During Labour’s time running the NHS, use of Public Finance Initiatives (PFI) increased to the point that even The Guardian described its crippling effects on hospital budgets.

It was Hancock who wrote £13.4 billion off hospital debts, much of which had accumulated due to PFI contracts. It was formerly Chancellor Phillip Hammond who ended the use of PFI and PF2 contracts. It was the last Labour government who privatised Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which the Conservatives then took back into public ownership in 2015.

More recently, the opposition has found itself at odds with the CMO and BMA over attempts to change testing policies through an amendment in Parliament. Even during the early history of the NHS, it was Labour who introduced prescription charges along with charges for spectacles and dentistry.

As a member of the Health and Social Care (HSC) select committee, I don’t shy away from being critical myself. I am aware of the need for transformation in many areas. It has been clear to me that the parity of esteem between physical and mental health, for example, needs addressing much more robustly. As does the parity between NHS and social care workers.

The good news is I believe the decision-makers for these areas have heard this call loud and clear from the very top and are focussing on solutions.

The announcement by Hancock mid-August regarding the creation of the NIHP was an important step that sadly once again had to battle against the noise of opposition repeating the old “privatisation” rhetoric.

For anyone who listened carefully, they would have heard this critical line at the end of the speech. The Secretary of State said, “It (NIHP) will work hand in glove with the NHS, and it will use the most modern, cutting-edge digital and data analytics tools at its core.” Such remarks are not about privatisation, but about a new era of agile government supported by highly capable health agencies.

The easing of unnecessarily bureaucratic systems, the harnessing of technological capabilities, the rise of telemedicine and enhancing the powers of frontline staff should now become the new norm for healthcare.

We have also seen a robust partnership with AstraZeneca and others with the vaccine development, the use of private healthcare facilities for public purpose and the building of the Nightingale Hospitals’ at a record pace. The Government will enable the NHS to spend £10 billion over the next four years on private hospitals to tackle waiting lists.

Not one aspect of this has been a drive towards privatisation, but a more collaborative way of working that aims to benefit patients and staff.

I am not arguing that the Government shouldn’t be put under intense scrutiny by the opposition – in fact – I welcome it. We must end this knee-jerk media scaremongering that only puts fear into the most vulnerable and those working on the frontline.

What we need is a visionary approach to healthcare for this century if we want to seek ways improving patient outcomes and being the best possible employer for Health & Social Care staff. 65 per cent of the NHS’s history has been under a Conservative government, and privatisation simply has not happened under our watch.

Luke Evans: While we all hope for a vaccine, we know that we will never return to pre-pandemic normal

22 Jul

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

Four months ago, around the start of the Coronavirus lockdown, the Editor of ConservativeHome contacted me to ask whether, as both a GP and a newly-elected backbench Member of Parliament, I would like to write a weekly diary about how Covid-19 would come to affect my constituency.

Of course, as any newly-elected backbench MP would, I jumped at the chance. It would hopefully be a way to give an insight into what goes on at the grassroots of backbench business.

But far more importantly, I saw it as an obvious opportunity to assess Covid-19’s impact on my constituency of Bosworth on a weekly basis.

I would have to step back and think for a couple of hours before picking up my laptop. That’s vital time which helps you to reflect and strategise about what you do next.

A space to breathe in a fast flowing, ever-changing situation.

So as Parliament breaks up for its summer recess, it’s a good time to reflect on the past four months – to ask what went well and, of course, what I could have done better as a new MP.

A chance to gather my office together. After all they have shouldered the load with me, and without their dedication, tenacity and expertise the situation as a new MP would be nearly untenable. Four weeks to simply focus on the constituency; clear the decks, reset, and prepare for the next phase.

Until September an uneasy hiatus, as we’re nowhere near the end of the Coronavirus story I fear.

I recognised right at the very start of these columns that I was fortunate to come from a medical background. I was able to understand the data, the system, the clinical constraints on staff and hopefully ask pertinent questions at the Health and Social Care Select Committee – and in the virtual Chamber of the House – while also raising ideas that were fitting to ministers and their departments, and where possible offering solutions.

That experience as a GP, I hope, meant that I was able to communicate those aspects effectively to my constituents. As we were learning about the virus at a rate of knots I was able to record videos about the differences between social distancing and shielding, and – even now the most effective weapon in our fight against the virus – good hygiene.

But it quickly became apparent that while this period in our history has been driven by a global virus, with far too many lives tragically lost, the medicine has only been one part of a much wider crisis.

Where I was comfortable in discussing the science the role of an MP is seldom that of a specialist. I had to gain knowledge in supporting businesses on the verge of collapse, constituents losing their jobs and – certainly not least – a world-renowned zoo fighting for survival.

Anyone entering politics really does need to know that at base backbench level, to serve your constituents you quickly need to become a problem-solving generalist. It should come a surprise to no one that in the past month I’ve asked as many questions about the economic impact of Covid-19 as I have about the medical one.

But as Parliament breaks for the summer our minds turn to what comes next.

Like everyone else I’m eagerly watching the promising medical breakthroughs that we have heard about in the past two days and hope that they come to fruition. While we all hope for a vaccine, we know that we will never return to pre-pandemic normal – this can be construed as a positive or negative, and we all have an active role in the preponderance to which it is.

Although we all have to be working for the best, we also have to be preparing for the worst. We must be mindful of the economic impact of the virus, how we begin to pay it back and the absolute need to protect younger people who may well bear the brunt through unemployment. All balanced with the plan to deliver on what we promised as Conservatives that lead to a large majority in the House.

I’m proud of how this Government has responded to the greatest threat to us all in living memory. Of course not all has gone to plan, and there will no doubt be lessons to be learned, but to be here with one of the best health services in the world and a growing economy is a huge testament to the work of the Cabinet.

So I leave Parliament for recess with a thought stuck in my head: what do we want our virus legacy to be?

I believe a question the public, businesses, politicians and Government all need to think long and hard about and actively make a choice. As a crisis creates opportunity now is the time to harness it for good.

I hope to return in September, rested, refreshed and ready to articulate a positive future for Bosworth and the country.