Jeremy Hunt delivers a speech during his visit with David Cameron to the Evelina London Children's Hospital on July 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories' attacks on the Welsh NHS have been exposed as baseless

A new report calmly and authoritatively shows that there is no significant difference in the performance of the four UK health systems.

When David Cameron was first elected Prime Minister he came to Wales and pledged "a new respect" agenda, promising collaboration and partnership between the devolved Welsh Government and his own. Yesterday, he returned to Wales to address the dwindling band of Welsh Tory faithful at their annual conference and spectacularly broke that promise.

In a vitriolic speech that demeans the office of Prime Minister, Cameron described Offa's Dyke, the divide between England and Wales, as "a border between life and death".  Even the Western Mail (the Welsh daily once described by Nye Bevan as a Tory rag and the Coalowner's Gazette) marvels at language from the Prime Minister that would be more suitable "to describe a criminal atrocity or a natural disaster".  They concluded that "politically motivated scaremongering is intolerable...the battle for votes in England can never justify terrifying a grandmother in Wales on the eve of a hip operation."

Sadly, this sordid intervention by Cameron is a new low in a long campaign the Conservative Party have been orchestrating to smear the NHS in Wales. Jeremy Hunt did exactly the same in his conference speech yesterday and even the Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones, has been using any opportunity to whip up fear by criticising key Welsh public services. The Conservative chairman Grant Shapps even went as far as openly stating that his party were going to target Wales as part of their general election strategy.

But what is most galling and insulting about this grubby strategy of targeting the Welsh NHS is that it is unquestionably based on a lie. On the very day this speech was being made, leading health academics at the Nuffield Trust, published a report based on over a decade’s worth of data, which made it crystal clear that "no one country is emerging as a consistent front-runner on health system performance". 

In the face of Cameron’s claims of a crumbling NHS in Wales, the weighty report 'The four health systems of the UK: How do they compare?' calmly and authoritatively showed beyond question that while each of the four nations have particular strengths and weaknesses, none of them is consistently ahead. In doing so, the report dealt a significant blow to the Tory election strategy. Perhaps most importantly, it also points to the fact that "there have been significant improvements in the performance of the four UK health systems over the past two decades". Showing the Conservative claims of a health service in meltdown are groundless. The Tories’ fox has not only been shot, but stuffed and mounted as well.

The report does say – as with everywhere in the UK – that there are challenges to be addressed. Over the period it looked at, waiting times for certain procedures, such as knee operations, rose as austerity set in. But the latest information shows that the standard waiting time for an orthopaedic procedure in Wales is 15 weeks – this is less than the Welsh Government’s target of 26 weeks. This is despite Wales managing budget cuts from UK government of £1.7bn and the fact we have the oldest population of the four home nations.

Nevertheless, extra investments have been made since the period covered by the report to tackle waiting times, including an extra £63m for orthopaedic surgery, and overall health spending per head still remains higher in Wales than England – showing the Welsh Government’s commitment to the NHS. All Welsh Labour politicians realise that we are custodians for the NHS, the most treasured institution in Wales. Ours is the country and party of its founder Nye Bevan - no one is more proud of our NHS than the Welsh people. That is why it has been so galling to see the Prime Minister and others make attacks on the NHS in Wales, which have been proven beyond doubt to be groundless.

Yet for all their negativity, the Conservatives have had little positive breakthrough with the public.  A recent YouGov poll showed just 14 per cent of Welsh people trust the Tories with the NHS, perhaps too many of us remember when they were last in charge in Wales, with crumbling hospitals and people being forced to wait two years for operations. Far from genuine concern for the health of ordinary people, this smear campaign is a smokescreen to distract from David Cameron’s handling of the NHS in England where he has caused an A&E crisis and wasted £3bn on a pointless reorganisation.

So my message to the Tory high command is as clear as the Nuffield Trust’s report - if you want to fight the next election on the health service, be our guest.  Nationally, Labour saved a crumbling health service in 1997 and in Wales we continue to run an excellent and improving service, true to the NHS’s core values of putting people before profit.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.