NHS horror stories, my life as a Twitter fogey, and cricket’s robot generation

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Horror stories about the National Health Service come thick and fast, conveniently for a government that wants to hand it over to private capital. One week, it is chaos in A&E; the next, substandard care at 14 hospital trusts and old folk being ushered to an early grave by the Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP). We should treat these stories with scepticism even when they are apparently validated by official inquiries.

With all the talk of “excess deaths”, you would think that our hospitals had become killers. Yet, as the NHS medical director for England, Bruce Keogh, observes in his report on the 14 “failing” trusts, overall mortality in hospitals has fallen by about 30 per cent over the past decade.

Inquiries, however, rarely conclude that the problems they were set up to address don’t exist and they would be dismissed as whitewashes if they did. Given the emotion and fears surrounding serious illness and particularly death, it’s easy to find allegations of medical neglect. Julia Neuberger’s report on the LCP is replete with phrases such as “some people”, “many people” and “all too often”. There are no references to randomised sample surveys. The inquiry invited submissions from the public (it received 483), talked to 113 people at meetings and looked at hospital complaints. Such evidence should not be ignored but it is naturally biased towards those who suffered bad experiences.

No institution is perfect and anything involving medicine, which is as much an art as a science, will be more imperfect than most. What we don’t know is whether a health service run by private providers would be better.

I offer this snippet: in 2010, the US health department’s inspector general reported that 13.5 per cent of Medicare hospital patients suffered “harm” from “adverse events”, nearly half of them because of care failures. British newspapers love to highlight cases of “wrong-site surgeries”, in which ovaries are taken out instead of the appendix, for example. The United States has 40 of those a week; the UK has about 60 a year. The NHS has failings but they seem relatively few and, by international standards, very cheap.

Guilt by association

What’s in a name? The Neuberger report acknowledges that “many relatives” of patients on the LCP felt their loved ones had had “good deaths”. Yet it recommends dropping the term. “Pathway”, it argues, suggests patients being speeded directly to their coffins. I wonder if “Liverpool” isn’t the greater problem. Thanks partly to the Sun and Boris Johnson, the city has acquired negative associations in the past 25 years. Mention Liverpool and people think of poverty, unemployment, riots, too much drink and a declining football team.

Seen but not heard

The BBC’s director general, Tony Hall, says that he intends to stop actors muttering in the corporation’s dramas. If so, he will be performing a service to theatregoers as well as TV viewers. Actors, it seems, are no longer being taught to articulate their lines clearly and “throw” their voices, largely because the big money is now in TV, where authenticity is thought more important than audibility. Being deaf, I nearly always buy front-row seats at the theatre, but in the West End recently, we sat in the grand circle and my wife, whose hearing is perfect, complained that she couldn’t hear, either. Theatregoers should start a campaign and, at an agreed signal, stand in unison and shout: “Speak up!”

Social outcast

We hear much about how social media companies hold extensive databases on us that could be exploited by governments and corporations. We also hear about their inadequate controls over insulting comments. But I have not noticed discussion of their arbitrary power over users. I returned from holiday to find my Twitter account “suspended”, without warning or explanation. After a polite, emailed inquiry, I was told to look at the rules. I replied I couldn’t see how I had broken them. Two weeks later, someone at Twitter emailed me, saying, “It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from you,” and that “hopefully” the matter had been resolved. It certainly hadn’t, I replied. The account was restored a few days later, still without explanation or apology.

Being an old fogey, I use Twitter spasmodically and was not greatly inconvenienced by its loss. To some users, however, it has become an essential working tool. In a telling example of how technology can restrict rather than widen choice, many feel they must use it because their professional peers do so. We should know more about the Californian geeks who run social media and what redress they offer to those arbitrarily blackballed.

Analyse this

How could Ashton Agar, a 19-year-old cricketer playing his first Test and batting at No 11, make 98, the highest score of Australia’s first innings against England at Trent Bridge? The answer is that, since Agar had played only 16 unremarkable first-class innings, the England coaches, lacking videos of him, could offer bowlers no plans for getting him out. International sides now analyse opponents exhaustively. They produce pie charts, spreadsheets, graphs and other statistical paraphernalia, searching for a batsman’s weakness as assiduously as physicists searched for the Higgs boson. Even the best modern bowlers are robots, programmed by back-room boffins. Without the usual input, they malfunction.

What redress does Twitter offer to the arbitrarily blackballed? Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.