Healthcare: another thing that the Germans just do better

Germany has rejected restrictions on doctors visits.

Recent Conservative ideas to restrict the number of GP visits in a year may be discounted as too controversial. But with the concept of universalism in health and welfare under threat we should not be so complacent. This is another area where we should follow the current trend of noting what has happened in Germany: consultation fees for visiting the doctor were abolished in Germany on 1 January 2013.

Co-payments, as they were called, of €10 if you visited the doctor in any given quarter or if you went to a specialist without a referral, were introduced by Schroder’s government in 2004. Addressing similar concerns to the NHS at present on health costs and the waste of doctors’ time on trivial conditions it was thought, at the time, to be a good idea by all the main parties in Germany. It was supposed to deter the practice in Germany’s compulsory health insurance system of patients hopping from specialist to specialist. They also thought it would bring in approximately €2bn per year.

Once in opposition the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens turned against the idea of co-payments. As you would have predicted the charges deterred many people from going to the doctor. So it is obvious that the cost in dealing later with deteriorating conditions and in personal misery was great. Even on the projected revenue the German government did not meet its targets. When the abolition of co-payments was debated in the Bundestag last November the Financial Times Deutschland reported that medical practices spent approximately 120 hours a year collecting the fee, a total administrative cost of €360m. Once it came to a vote at the end of last year – coincidentally on the historic date of 9 November – the ruling conservative-liberal coalition (CDU/CSU and FDP) also changed their minds and the Bundestag voted unanimously to abolish the charge.

Could co-payments be introduced in Britain? The idea could be sold as a fairer method than restricting the number of GP visits per patient, it would be said "only those who can afford to pay will have to make this small contribution". But people of all income brackets have commitments to meet, whether it is a mortgage, rent or bills and any fee, no matter how small will deter people from seeking medical help. For those with long-term conditions the need to see your doctor regularly is clear. For the rest of us, also, we need to see the doctor when we have concerns. We may dismiss our niggling symptoms, but we will all get something serious eventually and it may happen sooner if, being human, we decide to spend our tenner on something other than going to the doctor for a trivial matter.

I would suggest that following recent top-down healthcare reforms it is only a matter of time before a formal proposal on GP visits is made – the Tory idea on restricting the number of visits is just to test the water. Universalism has not been defended but is a sound principle. It is more straightforward, we all contribute (even those on out-of-work benefits pay VAT) and we all benefit. The bureaucracy of means-testing is avoided. The case for the better-off benefiting is clear, we are all part of the community and the costs can be recouped by looking at the tax paid by the better-off. In terms of GP visits this is another case where we can learn from the way the Germans do things – a mistake was made but they reconsidered it and put it right.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.