Ambulances are seen at the Accident and Emergency department of St. Thomas' Hospital in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We need to talk about the NHS - Cameron must break the Crosby-imposed silence

If the Tories won't face up to the problems in the health service, it's time to make way for a government that will.

David Cameron used to say that his priority could be summed up in three letters: NHS. Now, it seems, he prefers not to talk about it. The word in Westminster is that, on the advice of Lynton Crosby, the Prime Minister has asked his ministers for a period of pre-election silence on the NHS. So the Queen's Speech came and went without even a mention of Mr Cameron's erstwhile priority.

The list of reasons why Mr Cameron no longer wants to talk about the NHS is growing longer by the day. The last week has brought a stream of statistics confirming what many people suspect: the NHS is heading downhill under his government.

First, we learnt that the NHS missed its cancer treatment standard for the first time, leaving a growing number of people waiting longer for the start of treatment and families facing prolonged anguish.

Then, on Wednesday, came news that the deterioration in cancer care was worse than we thought and extended to people with suspected cancers waiting for tests. Waiting times for diagnostic tests are at a six-year high, with 17,000 waiting longer than they should.

Thursday brought the news that the number of people on NHS waiting lists had gone past the three million mark for the first time in six years - highly embarrassing for a Prime Minister who once said that the test of his NHS re-organisation would be its effect on waiting times.

Finally, it was revealed on Friday that A&E departments across the country are in the grip of a summer crisis, with record numbers attending and tens of thousands waiting too long to be seen. The NHS overall has now missed its A&E target for five weeks running; more worryingly, hospital A&Es have not hit it 47 weeks.

A&E is the barometer of the whole health and care system. This barometer is now clearly warning us that there are severe storms ahead for the NHS unless urgent steps are taken to put it back on track. Perhaps this explains why, after a run of negative statistics, there were reports that the government had resorted to panic measures to shore up England's hospitals.

Without any great announcement, or even so much as a press release, it emerged that large amounts of money are to be thrown at the NHS in a bid to keep further bad headlines at bay. It is not clear what the government has decided because of the lack of a clear statement. Some newspaper reports this weekend said £650m in "new money" had been found, while others believe it to be £250m. Whatever the amount, what is clear is that is that is unprecedented for a Prime Minister to have to throw millions at a summer A&E crisis. What is also clear is that, right now, the NHS is in a very dangerous position. All the signs show that it is slipping into a serious condition but it has a government in charge that is not prepared to talk about it. This is not good enough.

Minsters cannot be allowed to take such significant decisions without any explanation of why they are doing it or where the money is coming from. Cameron must order his ministers to come to the Commons early this week to answer these points.

Beyond that, there must now be a proper debate about what is happening in the NHS, why it is going wrong and what must be done to put it right. The reason why David Cameron is so desperate to avoid this debate at all costs is because it brings him back to his biggest misjudgement as Prime Minister: allowing Andrew Lansley to proceed with his ill-considered reorganisation. He was explicitly warned it would damage standards of patient care - and it has. Throwing money at the problems of his own making is no long-term solution for the NHS he has so disastrously destabilised.

David Cameron's great problem is that, though he thinks he can keep things quiet with a few bungs here and there, the public can see for themselves what is happening. They know it has for much harder to get a GP appointments. They are hearing the stories of friends and family being told that they can't have the treatment they need and facing the agonising choice of waiting in discomfort or paying to go private.

The voters are on to Mr Cameron and his damage to the NHS. Worryingly for him, a poll this week found that, for the first time in a long time, the NHS has risen to the top of voters' concerns. Storm clouds are gathering over the NHS, but it is trapped in a situation where the government of the day is not prepared to discuss them. This won't do. If they won't face up to the problems in the NHS, it's time to make way for a government that will.

Andy Burnham is the shadow health secretary

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.