London Despatch | International

In defence of National Health Service

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 04: Thousands of protesters march towards Parliament Square as they hold placards during a demonstration in support of the National Health Service (NHS) on March 4, 2017 in London, England. Thousands march from Tavistock Square to Parliament today for a demonstration against hospital closures, privatization and cuts to the NHS. (Photo by Tolga Akmen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 04: Thousands of protesters march towards Parliament Square as they hold placards during a demonstration in support of the National Health Service (NHS) on March 4, 2017 in London, England. Thousands march from Tavistock Square to Parliament today for a demonstration against hospital closures, privatization and cuts to the NHS. (Photo by Tolga Akmen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)  

Last year, when Britain’s Health Minister Jeremy Hunt began pushing for a major overhaul of the National Health Service (NHS) to introduce uniform 24/7 care, it triggered sharp responses. A number of leading medics, members of the House of Lords and House of Commons, and Professor Stephen Hawking wrote an open letter in The Guardian, warning that the data being relied on (it referenced eight independent studies) was not reliable. Only half of the studies were peer-reviewed while all but two were from over a decade ago. They pointed to 13 recent peer-reviewed studies that portrayed a very different picture.

“[Mr.] Hunt has cherry-picked research,” warned Mr. Hawking in a speech to the Royal Society of Medicine this August, as he warned that there was great danger in public figures abusing scientific argument for policy purposes. It could lead to fewer ordinary people trusting science at a time that scientific progress was “more important than ever”, he said. The role of research and evidence has come into play in Britain over the past year in the context of Brexit, with one Minister and Brexit campaigner infamously suggesting that Britain had had its fill of “experts”.

Mr. Hawking, who has motor neurone disease, as a result of which he has limited ability to move and must rely on a speech generator, has long been a fan of the NHS (on which he has had to rely since the symptoms of his disease began to emerge in the 1960s). Planned changes to the NHS, including the use of the private sector to provide certain services, as well as concerns about its funding, have propelled him in recent years to take an even more vocal stand. Defending the absolute centrality of “good care available... provided at the point of need for everyone without any regard for personal circumstance or the ability of one to pay” — or the need for a private health insurance intermediary, and the burdens of paperwork — were key to a “humane, civilised” system. He has also argued that a public sector system is far more efficient and cost-effective, contrasting the British system with those elsewhere, including in the U.S.

Public sentiment

Mr. Hawking’s perspective on the NHS appears in line with public sentiment. A recent study by the Legatum Institute found that the majority of the public wanted further tax rises to provide more funding for the NHS. His stance has on occasion brought him into conflict with senior Ministers. Mr. Hunt, who challenged Mr. Hawking’s accusation of cherry-picking, was mocked online this August for attempting to teach him how to interpret evidence. “Well, 1 gave us complex theories on black holes & alt universes. The other left a black hole where the NHS was & covered his back with alt facts,” tweeted one Labour MP.

Earlier this month, he joined a crowd-funded legal challenge to government policy, specifically calling for a judicial review of plans to introduce so-called Accountable Care Organisations (ACD), new commercial bodies to run health and social care service, which they argue could lead to reduced accountability and expenditure. “The NHS is being taken in a direction which I oppose... without proper public and parliamentary scrutiny, consultation and debate,” said Mr. Hawking, who described ACOs as an attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS”. The Department of Health has rejected the claims as “misleading” and “scaremongering”, insisting that the NHS would always be tax payer-funded and free-at-the-point-of-use, but the action has so far raised nearly £77,000 in donations.

Vidya Ram works for The Hindu and is based in London

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 1:35:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/in-defence-of-national-health-service/article22267403.ece

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