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Monday, January 18, 1999 Published at 17:10 GMT


Government has 'failed NHS'

Hospitals have been struggling to cope with increased workload

Government policy is to blame for the crisis in the NHS, it has been claimed.

NHS in crisis
During a heated Commons debate on the future of the NHS, shadow health secretary Ann Widdecombe said ministers' "excessive political concentration on waiting lists" had been largely responsible for a winter crisis.

Miss Widdecombe called on ministers to scrap their dogmatic approach, and to accept that private sector funding was needed to sustain a thriving health service.

But health secretary Frank Dobson claimed the Tories were simply trying to undermine the NHS for political reasons.

Ann Widdecombe: "There have been problems in the NHS since Bevan's time"
Ministers have repeatedly claimed that rationing of treatment in the NHS is not inevitable.

But Miss Widdecombe published a report on Monday in which she detailed examples of rationing that she claimed was already taking place.

Ann Widdecombe: "The problems are those of a successful service"
"Today the NHS needs a debate about rationing more so than at any time its history," she said.

"The health service is currently embroiled in one of the worst winter crises to hit our hospitals for many years."

Miss Widdecombe said the government had created a "climate of fear" among NHS bosses by insisting waiting lists be cut.

[ image: Ann Widdecombe attacked government policies]
Ann Widdecombe attacked government policies
The "ridiculous obsession" with numbers on waiting lists, combined with cuts in hospital beds, had made rationing inevitable, she said.

She quoted a ward manager from St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, who said there was a crisis in the health service, but it is now not just in the winter, it is now all the year through.

Miss Widdecombe said the public was "longing" for a "grown up" debate how best NHS resources were deployed. She said there "never were easy solutions" to the problems in the NHS, and it was wrong for government to suggest that there were.

"The fact is that until we have an honest and mature debate on rationing we are never going to tackle the increasing disillusionment that patients are feeling with our health service," she said.

Ann Widdecombe outlines opportunities for the future of the NHS
New sources of funding had to be found for the NHS, Miss Widdecombe said. Such funding was available if the government ceased to be dogmatic and accepted that partnership with the private sector was the best solution.

"However much we put into the health service the fact is that public spending has never done it all, is not do it all, and will never do it," she said.

No better alternative

Frank Dobson: "Rationing depends on how you define it"
Health Secretary Frank Dobson said that the rapid development and take up of new treatments meant uneven distribution of availability was inevitable, but he refused to accept that treatment was being rationed on financial grounds.

"This is about how fast patients get extra and better treatments, not about cuts and reductions," he said.

"What we have heard is the latest round in the endless attempts by the Tory right wing to decry and denigrate the NHS. They have always opposed it"

Mr Dobson said the public wanted to pay for the NHS through taxes, and wanted it to be free at the point of access.

Frank Dobson: "The people of this country do not want to abandon NHS principles"
Mr Dobson said the NHS was "more fair and cost effective" than alternatives based on private insurance.

"Nobody could deny that the NHS could always do with more resources than it is getting, but that is true of any other health system. Replacing our system would just mean unfairness and extra cost."

He said the government was investing in the NHS to end the lottery of unequal health care provision across the country.

Frank Dobson: "Labour is tackling all inequalities"
NHS trusts would be legally obliged to provide top quality services, and GP-led primary care groups would encourage cooperation, rather than competition in the health service.

Rationing examples

Examples of rationing highlighted in Miss Widdecombe's report include:

  • A patient dying in pain while waiting on a hospital trolley at St George's Hospital, London, from symptoms described by a consultant as the worst he had seen in 20 years;
  • Bodies being kept in refrigerated lorries in Norwich and Derbyshire;
  • The transport of an elderly patient with a potentially fatal respiratory infection 150 miles from Hemel Hempstead to Somerset;
  • Relatives being asked to provide basic nursing care for loved ones at two Portsmouth hospitals.
  • A patient's body lost for five days after he walked out of Chase Farm Hospital, north London, and fell into a ditch

The report also lists drugs and treatments that are being rationed, including:

  • Beta-interferon, used to treat multiple sclerosis;
  • Anti-psychotics such as Risperidone and Olanzapine;
  • Anti-cancer drugs Taxol, Ironotecan and Gemcitabine;
  • Non-acute varicose vein operations.

The report concludes that modern healthcare innovations demanded by patients could not be funded by the Government by traditional means alone.

[ image: Frank Dobson said the government had invested heavily in the NHS]
Frank Dobson said the government had invested heavily in the NHS
"That means we have to stop being ideological. This Labour government likes to speak glibly of bringing down `Berlin Walls' in our health service," Miss Widdecombe said.

"But at the same time it is digging a Grand Canyon between the public and private health sectors. They still just can't bring themselves to accept that private medicine has benefits for the whole community.

"The Government must admit that rationing exists. Only then can the mature debate into health service funding begin."

Former Conservative Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke joined the attack on Labour's handling of the NHS.

"After less than two years of Labour administration, the NHS is already coming under very much greater pressures and facing much bigger difficulties than most people in the service can remember for a very long time," he said.

"That is down to the folly of this Government and the fact that it has wasted its first two years without a proper policy and without facing up to what needs to be done."

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