NHS is becoming a four-letter word

The health service under attack plus modesty and Andrew Neil

By the time you read this, Buster Martin will have had his operation. The 100-year-old Londoner was suffering "unbearable" pain from an ingrowing toenail but was told he would have to wait at least a month for NHS treatment. So he went private at a cost of £1,400, telling the Daily Express: "I will never vote Labour again."

Meanwhile, staff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital King's Lynn, NHS Trust, in Norfolk, were told to stop ordering Biros. An internal memo, quoted in the Sun, advised: "A restriction on all new stationery orders was imposed by our turnaround team following the news that we had missed our cost savings target last month."

And the Sunday Telegraph brought news that hundreds of hospital chaplains face the sack or reduced hours as a result of the NHS cash crisis. Things are so bad for the chaplains of Worcester, we learned, that they are paid out of the proceeds of jumble sales.

There was more. The Sunday Express reported that a whole floor of the new Lewisham Hospital NHS Trust is empty because there is no money to use it; while the Telegraph and Observer highlighted the plight of pregnant women, turned away from maternity units because of a midwife shortage. Care standards are also under threat because underqualified nurses are being employed, and the Secretary of State for Health thinks having fewer beds is a sign of success.

Believe it or not, in news terms this constitutes a relatively benign few days for the NHS: there were no dead babies pointing ghostly fingers of blame, no fresh billions revealed to have gone astray, no new mutant viruses on the loose. At the Department of Health press office, they probably had time to take lunch breaks, which can't often have been the case lately.

Headline by headline, drip by corrosive drip, the NHS is turning into a four-letter word. The right-wing papers are doing most of the damage, but they are receiving plenty of government help.

The health service has always had its critics, just as it has always had its problems; yet for decades it has commanded popular affection of a kind rare for a public body. Nigel Lawson famously called it "the national religion". But from the Sun to the Sunday Telegraph and the Express to the Times, blasphemy is now the order of the day, as they try to convince their readers that the NHS has been reduced to a basket case that dispenses misery not healing. The consequence is surely likely to be a long-term loss of public faith.

The government helps this process in two ways: first and fundamentally by failing to fix the NHS's problems, thus generating a lot of bad-news stories about it, but also by infecting the service with its own wasting virus. The health service, you see, has no independent existence. The pinnacle of the bureaucratic hierarchy that starts at your GP's front desk is the office of the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt. There is no other headquarters, no other boss, no quango in charge.

What this means, in the age of spin, is that when a health secretary or a government is unpopular, the NHS is doomed to be unpopular too. There is no one to stick up for it whose first loyalty is to the service rather than the minister. And the more the minister uses the health service's achievements as cover, the more the service itself is attacked.

This explains why an organisation that must generate more good-news stories than any other outfit in the country (every minute of every day, it mends broken bodies, cures the afflicted and brings babies into the world) is unable to stamp its brand on its successes and so sell itself to the people it serves. Instead, it has to stand helpless as its reputation is whittled away.

Better than a knighthood

Modesty. Andrew Neil. I have tried, but those two just won't go in the same sentence, and the great man's appearance in the Observer's "My Week" page helpfully reminded us why. He is thrilled with his new office "in the heart of Westminster", from which he can see the Treasury "and keep a wary eye on what the Chancellor is doing with our money". And it's just a short walk to BBC Millbank, "from where I present several shows" (in fact, "I broadcast live for over five hours a week").

He has been asked on to Desert Island Discs ("friends say it's better than a knighthood") and, though he won't reveal his playlist, "let me tantalise by revealing it contains four seminal pieces of popular music, three classical gems and a modern jazz masterpiece", all carefully selected from his own "rather extensive" CD collection.

He was also a guest at the Costa Book Awards and "took along a beautiful and bright TV producer from al-Jazeera" - but you probably know about that already, because he "was responsible for a fair bit of publicity the event got in the next day's public prints".

Listening figures for Desert Island Discs have been sagging lately; I'm sure Neil is just what they need.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack