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How Labour broke the NHS – and why Labour must fix it

Successive attempts by Labour and the Tories to update the service have done more bad than good. It's time to put the NHS in intensive care.

It is an awkward fact for many on the left that the partial privatisation of the English National Health Service – started by the New Labour government in 2003 and enthusiastically accelerated by the current Tory-led coalition – has been such an apparent success. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 the service was struggling, particularly in terms of elective (non-urgent) care. Like all GPs, I often saw my patients having to wait up to 18 months for routine operations.

New Labour’s initial diagnosis was of inadequate resources: public spending on health as the party returned to power was roughly 5 per cent of GDP, substantially lower than in every other developed nation. Blair’s stated ambition was to bring this percentage up to the European average; more money, it was believed, would solve the problem. Labour set about the task with gusto. Gordon Brown’s first Budget in July 1997 heralded an immediate injection of £1.2bn into the NHS, with real-terms spending to rise year on year thereafter. At the same time, Labour began to dismantle some of the previous Conservative government’s experiments with “marketisation” – ending GP fundholding (under which some family doctors operated budgets on behalf of their patients) and re-emphasising collaboration over competition between different parts of the system. For me, as for most ardent supporters of a public-service NHS, they were optimistic days.

Yet by the time of the 2001 election, New Labour was facing accusations of failure to reform. Despite the extra investment in health, service improvements had been frustratingly slow to materialise and were incremental in scale. In addition, there was a worrying new trend. Just as they were doing with the education of their children, the increasingly prosperous middle classes were opting out of state health-care provision in ever greater numbers. Over a few short years it had become noticeably more common for patients in my reasonably affluent corner of southern England to declare they had enough spare cash, or had private insurance (often included in their employment package), and would like to use it to sidestep lengthy NHS waiting times. In an era when most of us swallowed Brown’s “no more boom and bust” myth, and there was a sense the good times might just keep rolling on, we appeared to be sleepwalking towards a US-style health-care system, where those with sufficient resources could get swift access to private treatment, leaving the rest to make do with what the public service could manage to provide.

The danger, as Blair realised, was in the medium to long term: the departure of the middle class would undermine the social contract on which the very idea of a national health service depends.

These were the considerations that led to the extraordinary spectacle of a Labour government adopting a policy direction not even the Tories had dared to explore. The NHS had to become so responsive and user-friendly that there would be no incentive for anyone to go elsewhere. In short, it must be able to compete with the private sector – and the way to do that, it seemed, was to make it “compete”.

To begin with, the Blair government’s approach was to “market-make”; and so, from 2003, successive waves of independent sector treatment centres (ISTCs) were opened throughout England. Run by private companies for profit, ISTCs were contracted (often on very favourable terms) to provide solely NHS elective procedures, creating extra capacity in the system to bring down waiting lists, and at the same time forcing existing providers to polish up their act if they wanted to hang on to any of their more “profitable” work. In parallel, the best NHS hospitals were able to apply for the new foundation trust status, which freed them from public-service constraints to operate more like private businesses.

Out of this market-making grew a new logic: that as well as deliberately inserting private provision inside the NHS, the health market should be opened to external competition. In 2009, in what transpired to be its dying days, New Labour introduced the “any qualified provider” (AQP) initiative, which allowed the private sector to undertake NHS work outside the ISTC programme. It is under AQP that the vast majority of my patients who require elective procedures now choose to spurn both our local district general and the ISTC in favour of referral to the nearby private hospital run by Circle.

The coalition government seized on the inroads made by New Labour. As well as cementing competition for work on a case-by-case
basis under AQP, Section 75 of their Health and Social Care Act 2012 makes it obligatory for commissioners to put every new NHS service (above a trivial size) out to tender. Analysis of data up to 2013 shows more than £12bn of NHS contracts were awarded to private companies during the first three years of the coalition.

On the face of it, the drive to compel competition has done what it was supposed to do (albeit at vastly increased administration costs, with contracts being negotiated, invoiced and monitored by armies of bean-counters on all sides). Much elective NHS care nowadays is provided within weeks, not months or even years. This is unquestionably good for patients. And fears for the future of the social contract have receded: where is the advantage in going private when you can get your operation paid for by the NHS at the same independent hospital?

The health insurance industry has adapted to the new realities, offering cheaper products that pay out only if the NHS should be unable to provide treatment within a specified time frame. With the fall in disposable income that has accompanied austerity, it is once again relatively unusual for my patients to request private referrals. One way or another, the NHS has remained the franchise to which most people look when they have an elective health-care need.

Why then is there a renewed row over NHS privatisation in the current election campaign? It has often been said (by both Labour and the Conservatives at different times) that patients don’t really care who provides their treatment, as long as it’s convenient, of good quality and funded out of general taxation. Surely Ed Miliband should be claiming credit for Labour having been bold enough to go where no political party had ever dared tread? And why is Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, publicly committed to repealing the Health and Social Care Act, with its compulsion to competitive procurement?

Burnham is resurrecting the language of the past, articulating a desire to see the NHS as the “preferred provider” of most services, and labelling the 100 days of this election campaign as the last chance to save this concept. Is this simply a belated restatement of an ideology that the left is now embarrassed to have renounced during its most recent years in government? An ideology, furthermore, whose time has been and gone?

The answers to those questions lie in the nature of the problems now facing the health service and how the privatisation agenda has created barriers to tackling them. This is where things begin to get complicated, which is why politicians generally shy away from trying to air them in the media, preferring to fall back on meaningless soundbites such as X billion pounds’ additional spending, or Y thousand extra doctors and nurses. Let me take you on a whistle-stop tour.

The first thing to appreciate is that commercial competition was a response to the NHS’s historically poor performance in providing timely access to mundane, high-volume procedures: cataract removals, joint replacements, gall bladder operations and so on. These elective cases are all discrete episodes: there’s a single problem and a definable clinical activity that will close the case. There are also readily quantifiable measures by which performance can be rated: most obviously, the length of the waiting list.

Markets can work well in this sort of scenario, particularly if risk can be mitigated by excluding complex, often very elderly patients in poor general health with multiple chronic diseases, who are more likely to experience unpredictable and expensive complications. The problem is, with every passing year, there are more and more of us living to become just this kind of patient – patients the private sector doesn’t want to do elective business with at NHS tariff prices, and for whom the old NHS is therefore the default source of help.

The second issue is that these elderly patients with multiple health problems are also presenting to the NHS’s other major arm – urgent-care services – in ever greater numbers. Their health is fragile and they are prone to frequent exacerbations in underlying chronic conditions such as heart failure or lung disease. Otherwise trivial illnesses can have a devastating impact – a simple urinary infection will, in a matter of hours, render a frail and elderly patient completely “off legs” and unable to look after him or herself. Social circumstances are often precarious, patients widowed or living with an equally vulnerable spouse, with far-flung and busy families unable to provide a rapid response should the home situation suddenly deteriorate.

When a patient of this kind becomes unwell, unless significant nursing and social care can be parachuted in at a moment’s notice to shore up community treatment (and at present they can’t) he or she is heading for hospital. Once the person is an inpatient, it can take an unconscionable length of time to help them rehabilitate, and for the social-care system to reinstate or augment a package of care that will allow them to be discharged. Beds get filled; beds get “blocked”.

The third factor is the changed face of NHS urgent-care services. There are all sorts of things one could say about this but here’s the fundamental point: when someone with anything more than a completely straightforward illness becomes unwell, at some stage you are going to need an experienced clinician to decide how to manage it. When I began in practice in 1990 there were only three places you could turn to if a crisis arose: your GP (day or night), the ambulance service, or A&E. The system was understood by virtually everyone and the vast majority of contacts went through their GP first. This, crucially, introduced a highly trained professional at the earliest stage of the process. GPs are thoroughly at home managing uncertainty and negotiating complexity, and we kept a vast amount of work away from hospitals.

Nowadays there is a plethora of other entry points into the urgent-care system – the NHS 111 helpline, walk-in centres, out-of- hours (OOH) services (now mostly provided by private companies) and minor injuries units. NHS 111 and, to a variable extent, the others employ either non-clinical staff operating a risk-averse computer algorithm, or clinicians who are junior and inexperienced. The net result is that the first time many patients encounter an experienced clinician is long after they’ve been admitted to hospital. The opportunity for community management, if it existed, has been lost.

These are the principal forces behind the flurry of declared major incidents this January, which led to hospitals up and down the country closing their full-to-bursting doors. Our own district general remained open – just – but in a continual state of black alert (which is every bit as bad as the name suggests). All elective surgery was abandoned and extraordinary measures were employed to free up every scrap of capacity.

If we want to do anything other than lurch from crisis to crisis, the whole system will have to be reconfigured. Hospitals, GP surgeries, community nursing, OOH, NHS 111, the ambulance service, walk-in centres and minor injuries units are all nominally NHS bodies and should, in theory, be able to work together to ensure only patients genuinely in need of acute hospital care are admitted. The problem is, in our present-day competitive NHS, each entity is trying to protect its budget and ensure its own performance meets the benchmarks by which it will be judged next time its contract comes up for renewal. Perverse and protectionist behaviour ricochets round the system, the easiest solution often being to admit a complex patient and let their care become the responsibility of the hospital. And that’s before you try to bring social care into the mix, which is integral to the project of supporting unwell patients in their homes but which historically has been provided by local government out of a completely separate (and even more pressured) budget.

It is in this incredibly complex and messy situation that Circle – the first private company to be awarded a contract to run an NHS district general hospital, at Hinchingbrooke in Cambridgeshire – announced recently that it will walk away. It’s not that a commercial company can’t run a modern acute hospital; there are half a dozen such private facilities in London (though nowhere else in the country is affluent enough to sustain one). It’s that the kind of money the NHS is offering is woefully inadequate to mitigate the risk to the private sector of unpredictable and ever more intense surges of demand, exacerbated by perverse behaviour elsewhere in the system. Circle is going back to running its controllable elective AQP business, licking the wounds that it has sustained from its adventure into the NHS acute sector.

We made a concerted effort in our area a couple of years ago to solve the problem with urgent care. Most of the big players – our district general hospital, all local GP surgeries, the ambulance service, OOH and the walk-in centre – joined together in an effort to run the newly recommissioned service. This would have aligned the interests of all parties better and should have led to some creative solutions. However, under Section 75 regulations the procurement had to be competitive, with each of the nine eventual bidders being judged on quasi-objective grounds that were rooted largely in process and that weighed only things that could readily be measured. Such is the fear of litigation under competition law that there is simply no latitude for commissioners to use common sense or professional judgement to prefer a bid on the grounds that it is a good idea and exactly what the local area needs. Our bid narrowly lost out to a company based several hundred miles away.

As well as this structural bar to commissioning joined-up working, competitive procurement is eroding the goodwill and loyalty that the NHS has historically enjoyed from its workforce. The firm that won the contract in our area now runs the out-of-hours service and urgent-care centre adjacent to A&E. It has struggled to appoint a local clinical director (the post is still vacant a year in). Many staff who supported out-of-hours provision for years have walked away, so alienated do they feel; each week, the company has to fly or chauffeur clinicians and drivers from elsewhere in the country just to keep what is at times a skeleton service going. Turnover is high and those local staff who continue to work under the new regime are weary of the constant appeals to step into the breach to fill rota gaps.

Staff and doctors who once willingly responded to requests for assistance leave their phones unanswered when they recognise the number of the rota administrator. A rich but unquantifiable resource, which might be called the public-service ethos in the NHS, has been squandered in front of our eyes. Even at this stage it may be too late to recapture it.

The deleterious effects of a competitive marketplace have been loudly argued by opponents of privatisation throughout the past decade. Yet according to one commissioner with over 20 years’ experience of health-
service procurement, no one in government had any vision of how the competition agenda might degrade integrated systems of care for patients with multiple diseases. The
focus was unrelentingly on improving elective care – the NHS’s low-hanging fruit – with fingers crossed in the forlorn hope that the changes being made wouldn’t destabilise the rest of the service.

Of the major parties contesting the forthcoming general election, it is Labour that seems to understand the issue, and it is this that underpins Andy Burnham’s pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Act and to legislate to exempt the NHS from EU competition legislation. Integrated care is the only game in town and it can only be delivered within projected levels of spending by well-configured public services that have been freed from the fragmentary consequences of enforced competition. That said, Labour finds itself in an embarrassing position: the party that began privatisation has to explain why that process – which has, after all, resulted in improvements in the elective-care arm of the service – is simultaneously incompatible with meeting the present-day challenges the NHS faces.

The Conservatives, by contrast, are silent; the NHS was conspicuously absent when they announced their six key manifesto areas. Having gone into the last election promising no more top-down reorganisations of the service, and having then presided over arguably the most damaging such reorganisation in the history of the service, they may quite reasonably believe that nothing they say on the subject will be trusted. They may also have calculated that the complexity of the problem defies exploration in our soundbite-dominated culture and that saying nothing will allow them to continue business as usual, should they be re-elected. If so, that would be a cynical continuation of the approach that has created the mess we are all dealing with.

Burnham is right: this election does represent a fundamental decision point as to how our NHS will develop or degrade in the future. We need to know, well in advance of the poll, where each party stands on this important matter. And having declared its approach, whichever party goes on to lead the next government must somehow be held to keep the promises on which it has been voted into power.

Dr Phil Whitaker is an award-winning novelist. He writes the New Statesman’s Health Matters column

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.