Dr Bernard. Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

NHS scandals, markets in health care – and why a dog is often just as good as a doctor

"If you’re too depressed to put your pants on in the morning, they’ll lick your testicles. When did you have that much fun with a doctor?"

I was honoured to be asked to speak at the People’s March for the NHS when it rolled into Bristol and hundreds of NHS staff and supporters shouted out for a properly funded, publicly owned health service that is not for profit or sale. At a previous stop in Nye Bevan’s birthplace, Tredegar, the actor Michael Sheen had grabbed global attention, imploring politicians to, “by God, believe in something”. It was a hard act to follow but it focused the mind.

I believe in the NHS because its principles bind us together as a humane society; loving and caring for people according to their needs, not their ability to pay. I don’t believe in putting whole services out to ­tender to companies that are obliged to make a profit for shareholders. Markets often fail to deliver humane health care because it’s far easier to make money from those who need less care, at the expense of those who need it most. This insidious vested interest plays havoc with professional judgement. And if you can’t make a profit, you bail out . . . leaving the NHS to pick up the pieces.

 

Political footballs

I believe in the NHS but I also believe it could be even better. The Commonwealth Fund ranks it as the top performing health service in the world but, as a Private Eye journalist for 23 years, I’ve seen how it can treat those who try to speak up about poor care. In 1991, I met Ian Hislop in the toilet at a BBC Radio light entertainment Christmas party. I asked him for a column in Private Eye. He asked me not to stand quite so close. But he gave me a break and, in 1992, I unearthed a dark secret about child heart surgery in my home city of Bristol. Far more babies were dying or suffering brain damage in Bristol than they would have done had they gone to neighbouring units.

I broke the story in the Eye that year but it took seven years for it to become what was then the largest public inquiry in ­British history. The whistleblower, Stephen Bolsin, paid for his bravery with his career and was never able to work in the NHS again. Fast-forward 23 years and child heart surgery in the NHS still hasn’t been safely reorganised and whistleblowers are still being destroyed for trying to protect patients from harm. For all the good it does, a politicised NHS can still be very brutal when it comes to burying bad news.

 

Crash test dummies

Journalists need to have values and I’ve slowly learned that understanding is more likely to improve the NHS than brutal exposure. Imagine you’re a surgeon trying to do the hardest job in the world – operate on babies’ hearts the size of a plum – and you find that what you thought was a confidential audit of your results has appeared in a satirical magazine, along with the revelation that doctors in your own hospital have dubbed your unit “the Killing Fields”. What would your response be? When hospitals are so brutally exposed, they tend to pull up the drawbridge and shred the evidence. Disastrous operations in Bristol continued for three years after I broke the story.

The solution I came up with in 1999, based on the ideas of a visionary doctor called Bill Pickering, was for an airline-investigation-style team for the NHS, to go in quickly when serious concerns have been raised by patients, carers or front-line staff. The team needs to be clinical – so it has access to all the medical records – but independent from the professional and NHS “brotherhoods”. It could root out vexatious complaints as well as nip further harm in the bud. Its reports would be published in full.

Bill Pickering died in February, too soon to see that one recommendation of the recent Kirkup review into the avoidable deaths at an NHS maternity unit was . . . an NHS “crash investigation team”.

 

Patient explanations

Can patients and carers do anything to survive in an NHS stretched to breaking point? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with since I was asked to write a book called Staying Alive: How to Get the Best from the NHS. It’s very rare that a publisher asks you to write anything, so I said yes. Then I got stuck for months trying not to fall into the trap of a doctor who has never been ill telling people how to behave when they are. My “aha” moment came when I realised that I needed to do what the NHS needs to do: listen to patients. So, I collected stories and suggestions from patients and carers, many of whom had had excellent care in the NHS – and a few of whom hadn’t and wanted to ensure that others weren’t harmed. What struck me was that they all said that great care was founded on compassion, collaboration, competence and communication; and that once you’ve recovered from the shock of a serious diagnosis you need to speak up and stay on top of your care.

It’s easier said than done but as Edward R Murrow observed: “Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.” I’m hoping that readers will be inspired and emboldened by those who have bounced back from extraordinary hardship and unfairness and want to share their ­experiences and expertise.

 

Hair of the dog

For 90 per cent of symptoms, you’re better off with a dog than a doctor. Hug one and it reduces your blood pressure. A dog also reduces your cholesterol . . . by eating your food. Dogs are always happy to see you. Dogs give you unconditional love. Dogs don’t mind if you get their name wrong. Dogs don’t mind if you’re drunk. Dogs don’t mind if you don’t take your tablets. Dogs are delighted if you forget to wash. They particularly love it when you bring a sample. Dogs always have longer than ten minutes. Dogs look you in the eye – and they keep looking at you until you take them out for a walk. You can wrestle on the carpet with a dog without getting arrested. And if you’re too depressed to put your pants on in the morning, they’ll lick your testicles. When did you have that much fun with a doctor?

Dr Phil Hammond is an NHS doctor, journa­list and comedian. “Staying Alive” (Quercus) is published on 2 April

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser