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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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