Jim O’Neill assesses the health of the NHS in Scotland as we celebrate its 70th birthday.

 

It is now 70 years since Nye Bevan had to “stuff doctors’ mouths with gold” to usher in the single most important success of the Attlee government. As a child of the NHS, I couldn’t let that go past without comment.

My mother was a nurse pre-NHS and post-NHS, and her view was that it was the best thing to happen in her long life. My sister is a nurse, my brother is a nurse, one daughter is a phlebotomist, I have two nephews who are doctors, and one niece runs a care home. I am surrounded by the NHS. I am extremely grateful for the care it has given me and my family over the years. So, how is it faring, this old lady of the welfare state?

The first comment has to be that she has been successful in surviving so long, through long years of Tory government, periods of desperate underfunding, and attempts to dismember her. And this has, sadly, been mirrored in Scotland in recent years, by one health minister cutting the number of nurses in training, and her bestest friend presiding over scandal after scandal of mismanagement and underfunding which sees four health boards having to be bailed out by the Scottish Government. This at a time when GP practices are closing through lack of GPs, GPs being replaced by nurse practitioners, and the largest shortfall of consultants in the history of the NHS.

So will the new health minister, Jeanne Freeman, turn this around? She, like her predecessor, represents an area where the health board is in dire straits, but no-one has taken the simple step of having these boards investigated to see why these things have happened. Is it a simple lack of funds, or is it a case of maladministration of the funds that they have? If it is the former, then it’s over to you Derek Mackay. If the latter, then Ms Freeman has to intervene. After all, it took one board member, the North Ayrshire leader Joe Cullinane, to draw the growing gap between funding and need in the Health and Social Care Partnership to the attention of Ms Robinson. And even then, little was done despite promises.

The UK spends less on healthcare than many of our European neighbours. So how can we say we have a better healthcare system, free at the point of need? It may be free, but you will have to wait for that need to be met, as targets are missed year after year, in A&E, in cancer care, in elderly care leading to bed blocking, and in many other parts of the service. I have personal experience in this. After my GP diagnosed that I needed a new knee I had to wait 10 months to see a consultant, only to be told that the GP had misread the X-ray and I didn’t need a new knee after all. That was 10 months of worry and waiting, and it all proved unnecessary. How is this an example of a service not in crisis?

I have the greatest regard for the workers in the NHS, who had to wait months extra in Scotland until the First Minister could make a political point of an offer that they can’t and won’t refuse. But they won’t have the first stage of that increase paid until the end of July at the earliest, and for many the end of August, four months after their colleagues in England. Using the hard-working staff of the NHS for political aggrandisement is shameful. There is no reason that this offer could not have been made in April. And it was the First Minister who announced it, not the Health Minister. Micro-managing much, Nicola?

It is about time that the old lady had a makeover. An independent assessment of the health needs of Scotland and our ability to fund that need is required. If the Scottish Government does not have the funding to ensure that no more health boards need bail-outs, then they should say so and either introduce taxation to pay for it or dip into the large underspend from last year. Or even tranfer funds from other departments to pay for it. As Nye Bevan said, “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. Being healthy is a priority for every woman, man and child in Scotland. I’m sure the founder of our great NHS would agree.