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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder