I have just seen a photo of Matt Vickers, MP for Stockton South and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, posing outside a local hospital. Behind him the ambulance queue stretches to the edge of the picture. To be fair to Vickers, he is calling for “much needed” investment in the University Hospital of North Tees. But it would seem to take a degree of bare-faced cheek to use the current crisis in the NHS as a grinning photo-opportunity.
There are reports that the Government will, within the next few days, announce some sort of emergency package that might alleviate the situation, perhaps by buying up private care home beds to free up space in NHS hospitals. This is in response to a crisis that has been building for months and had been widely predicted. With reports of an extra 500 deaths a week because of A&E delays, something clearly had to be done. Or be seen to be done.
Why has it taken so long? Why has the NHS been allowed to collapse into such a state?
There has been no shortage of doctors and nurses warning this would happen. No shortage of frontline reports in the media of the chaos at A&E departments. There are, I think, three possible explanations for the relative inaction so far. I will take them in reverse order of probability.
One, there is the conspiracy theory that the Government wants the NHS to collapse so it can be sold off to US healthcare providers and run as a business, charging for its services. We know Rishi Sunak has had contact with such companies, apparently to no avail. I don’t generally buy conspiracy theories, and I don’t buy this one even if there are clearly plenty within the Tory Party and on the backbenches who would want to see this happen.
This is a useful explainer of what may or may not be happening. It is a complicated subject. The timescale, however, does not suggest a complete privatisation of the NHS is feasible within the 20 or so months this Government still has to run. I also believe any moves to do so would rebound on the Tories at the next election.
That’s one theory gone, then.
The second is that the Government is literally powerless to act. Sunak is under pressure from the right of the party to cut taxes, possibly in the spring Budget. There are plenty of reports that those MPs, tiring of his ineffectual rule, want to replace him with Boris Johnson (£), unthinkable though that might seem.
Injecting huge amounts of money into the NHS would be both politically disastrous, in that it would seem to rule out those tax cuts, and ineffective. It takes years to train up the necessary doctors and nurses, and invest in the necessary infrastructure, to turn the NHS around from its current state – certainly, it is not possible by the next election. Has the Government merely been putting its hands over its ears, metaphorically speaking, and hoping that by spring a natural decline in infections such as Covid and winter flu will make the problem go away? Or at least until now, when some sort of action is plainly needed?
The third solution is that they simply don’t care. I have known an awful lot of very rich people in my time writing about the City and business. Some are decent enough, willing to pay their taxes like the rest of us. Others are astonishingly callous and uncaring about those less fortunate or well off than them. Many avoid paying the right rate of tax because they are convinced that the money only goes to scroungers and skivers. They believe, disregarding the advantages that life has bestowed on them, that anyone putting in the required effort could be as rich as them.
We know that Johnson was happy to see “the bodies pile high in their thousands” during the pandemic rather than take effective measures against it. Johnson is, in my view, essentially amoral.
Most of the Cabinet are wealthy – Sunak and his family are reportedly richer than the Royal Family. Almost all will have private healthcare, although in an interview today with Laura Kuenssberg, Sunak refused to reveal if he does or not.
Have they, up to now, simply not cared about the death toll brought about by the predictable crisis in the NHS? They and their dependents are protected because of that private health cover. It is a chilling thought, but it would explain the relative inactivity on the NHS up until now. What is a few thousand dead, if they are old and unproductive? In the long run, it saves on pensions and healthcare costs.
I merely raise the idea. If this seems far-fetched, I leave you with the following quote. “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”
This was written at the start of the pandemic by Jeremy Warner, economics commentator for The Daily Telegraph, the house organ of the Conservative Party, and widely commented on at the time.
It’s that word “culling” that really strikes a chill, isn’t it?