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Sometimes heat just obscures light

I like to maintain that I’m apolitical and impartial when it comes to the British political system and how it operates.

On top of that, I certainly possess neither the intelligence nor the interest in the subject to understand all the undoubted complexities of the current cause celebre in the National Health Service that is the dispute over the new contracts proposed for junior doctors by the Government through the person of Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health.

Having declared my interests in the matter – indeed perhaps lack of them – it may not surprise you that nevertheless I am going to comment upon said matter.

The NHS is a difficult subject and perennial political football. Healthcare for all free at the point of delivery was a wonderful concept when conceived by and implemented by the Labour Government of 1945-1951, and it still is.

Aneurin Bevan

Aneurin Bevan

More than one person has told me that in fact, as originally understood by Aneurin Bevan (the Health Secretary concerned), the NHS was not necessarily intended as free, free, free in every respect.

It was intended as a ‘safety net’ to ensure that – whether you be so high or so low – everyone in the UK could gain access to medical care when it was needed, especially in emergency situations. In other words, things like prescriptions etc. might have to be paid for, or at least contributed to (this in addition to everyone in the land paying according to their means for it generally through taxation).

I do not know whether this is true or not.

The point is, the NHS costs a lot of money and has become a growing burden upon the state. No politician wishing to advance his or her career will lightly dare to suggest that the NHS should be altered, still less dismantled, because it has become one of the central articles of pride and entitlement that defines this country.

Meanwhile everyone agrees that issues to do with how it is funded, how it might be made more cost effective – just generally how it might be made better – desperately need to be addressed. Yet nobody (or very few anyway, whether political, medical or visionary) have any real and acceptable ideas as to how this might be achieved, well other than those in the camp who hold to the view that the NHS is the NHS and – however much it costs to keep its show on the road – the country must somehow pay for it.

The above are just general comments and (I hope) relatively uncontroversial. It would also be fair to say that they neither take anything forward nor indeed solve anything.

My topic today, however, is that of public perception and how the media agenda works and/or can be manipulated to work by those involved in the issues of current interest such as this dispute over doctors’ contracts.

Over the past week – primarily listening to the radio, but also watching on television to an extent – I have been following its developments. Frankly, it has been hard to avoid them.

One can take it as read that Jeremy Hunt (and the Government) have been playing politics hard. Earlier this week, on the eve of the official ballot of junior doctors to decide upon taking industrial action, Mr Hunt announced that he was going to award them an 11% basic pay rise and that none of them (well very few) would be less well-off under the new arrangement he was proposing. The way he comes across in the media, he sounds so mild and reasonable that he almost implies that anyone who does not accept what he is saying is unhinged or simply failing to understand his scheme.

His opponents (the junior doctors) challenge everything he says. All this week they have been queueing up to appear in the media and on radio phone-in programmes to criticise the proposed new contractual terms and say that Mr Hunt is mendacious, untrustworthy, deluded, stupid, and ‘media spinning for all he is worth’. The gist of their case is that they are all highly put-upon, hard-working, people who only want to serve the health interest of their patients, yet far from Mr Hunt’s famous 11% basic pay rise being a pay rise, it actually means that – over the course of a week, given the hours they actually work – his new contract if implemented will result in them being somewhere between 24% and 29% worse off.

It goes without saying that Mr Hunt, on the one hand, and the junior doctors who have made their views known in the media on the other, cannot both be right.

My purpose today is simply to record that – gradually over time, and this is only a perception peculiar to me in the sense that I haven’t consulted with anyone else to see if theirs is similar – the impact of what the junior doctors have been saying has been gradually diminishing.

Their consistent message is that they’ve taken to the media only because Mr Hunt and the Government are ‘spinning’ their version of the events and facts so energetically … and thereby giving a false or one-sided impression. What that means, of course, is that they (the junior doctors) are now also ‘spinning’ those self-same items – or their ‘take’ upon them – with similar zeal.

However, the cumulative effect of them doing so is now tending to erode my sympathy for their position. For every six or seven junior doctors – from whatever their specific expertise or special area of research or interest – that turn up on the radio, it seems that for the rest of us confusion and then boredom, via the ‘flogging a dead horse’ syndrome, also soon follows.

Each of them makes an opening general point and then launches into the details of their own personal situation – which is so complex but also different from that of the previous junior doctor who made his or her case – that the viewer/listener struggles to get an overall sense of how they all relate to each other.

patientTo take them all at face value, without exception they are plainly direct descendants of St Francis of Assisi and/or Mother Teresa, selflessly working all the hours that God gives in the cause of looking after their patients, giving up all hope of every living a normal everyday life for themselves (no time off, no chance to have a family, no chance to go on holiday etc. etc.). The only rational conclusion that anyone listening to their tales can reach is that they should all be paid at least double, if not triple, what they’re paid now.

My problem is that by now I’ve succumbed to the equivalent of ‘donation fatigue’. I’ve become fed up with hearing how put-upon and unfairly exploited the junior doctors are.

One female junior doctor I listened to overnight peddled the line that her contract was fine as it was and ‘why fix what ain’t broke?’

In all this the only sympathy I have for Jeremy Hunt springs from the fact that, instinctively, human beings distrust potential change.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that change cannot/should not be dreamed up, discussed and maybe even one day implemented.

I do not accept the proposition that simply because the NHS is infinitely large and complex it cannot be made to work better, cheaper or more efficiently. Or that somehow – although nobody would deny that it has huge faults and problems – nothing can be done about them and therefore British politicians, NHS executives, front-line staff and ultimately British members of the public just all have to accept that ever-increasing amount of public money/taxation have to be poured into its bottomless pit.


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About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts