The Sun reports today that William Hague is lined up to speak at a rally in opposition to the downgrading of a maternity unit at a small hospital in his Yorkshire constituency. A spokesman for the Foreign Secretary is quoted as saying this has nothing to do with the health reforms contained in besieged legislation currently causing tumult in parliament.
In technical terms, that might just about be true. The Health and Social Care Bill isn’t on the statute books so it cannot directly have led to changes on the ground to which Hague is opposed. But politically the two cannot be separated. Partly, it just looks ridiculous. People conflate ‘reform’ and ‘cuts’ (the Sun’s copy certainly does) and generally blame the government for everything bad that happens in the NHS so will wonder whose side the Foreign Secretary thinks he’s on.
But the Hague conundrum also points to a more subtle, long-term problem. There is something approaching consensus in health policy circles that, eventually, for the sake of cost efficiency and coordination of care, specialist services need to be concentrated in centres of excellence, while routine procedures can be done more locally. What this means in practice is that the medium-sized district general hospital is an endangered species. There will be clinics, often based around GP practices, for the small stuff, and then fancy regional centres for the high-tech, complicated stuff. This dynamic appears to be what is behind the removal of certain services from Hague’s constituency. Routine baby deliveries will stay; inpatient paediatric care is moving off 22 miles away to Middlesborough.
The problem with this trajectory – although it might make commercial and clinical sense on paper – is that it makes for atrocious politics. It always means stories of sick patients being forced to travel miles by taxi or ambulance when what they really want is just to stay local. Every constituency has an old-fashioned general hospital and every MP feels obliged to stand by it on the barricades. (Remember Hazel Blears getting into much the same pickle?)
Lansley’s reforms are going to replicate this situation in constituencies up and down the country. The new GP-led commissioning structures and enhanced competition to provide care will, it is guaranteed, accelerate the process of ‘rationalisation’ away from general hospitals. That is partly the point of the reforms, albeit not one the government boasts about. Local surgeries will pick off the work that doesn’t need in-patient beds, while specialist hospitals will be the obvious suppliers of more complex procedures. Plenty of Tory and Lib Dem MPs are worried about the dilemma this will create for them. It is a courageous politician indeed who turns up at a local town hall meeting to say ‘actually,in the interests of overall NHS efficiency and in support of government policy, I’m here to defend the closure of our casualty/maternity ward.’
Hague isn’t planning on doing it. The rest will follow his lead. This is just one of many reasons why Andrew Lansley’s reforms are a political disaster. He can’t seem to sell them to the public and no one else with a seat to defend containing a cherished local hospital is going to dare do it for him.