GPs are being privatised by stealth, just as dentists were

Private companies now give patients the opportunity to jump the appointments queue.

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Browsing the minutes of the latest meeting of my local health centre patients’ group, I discovered the following: “The doctors have been approached by private companies and some partners have signed up to see patients privately.”

This practice has recently been put in special measures by the Care Quality Commission, partly because of patients’ difficulties in making GP appointments. Nationally, the average wait for a routine GP appointment is more than two weeks and, in some practices, more than a month. Private companies now offer opportunities to jump the queue. Doctaly, an Uber-style online platform launched in 2016 (to which two out of six partners at my local practice are apparently signed up), charges £40-£70 for a 15-minute appointment with a GP. Established private providers such as Bupa, with their own premises, usually charge significantly more.

At present, NHS GPs’ private work is heavily restricted. They cannot see patients registered at their own practices; they cannot access NHS records; they can earn only 10 per cent of their income privately. But when sufficient patients are signed up such restrictions could well be eased.

As this column has repeatedly warned, GPs are being privatised by stealth, just as dentists were. Some Tories have been striving towards that goal for nearly half a century. From their point of view, things are going swimmingly.

Insults and mockery

Here is an example of how defenders of Boris Johnson’s comments on burqa wearers miss the point. A Sunday Times columnist, noting that contributors to this magazine “have… been driven into a self-righteous fury”, recalls that in a New Statesman column published in 2006, Shazia Mirza, a Muslim comedian, compared the burqa to a dustbin liner.

There are two reasons why this was acceptable but Johnson’s comments weren’t. First, Muslim women are allowed to make jokes about each other just as Jews make jokes about other Jews. Second, Mirza was not an MP representing part of a London borough that has some 30,000 Muslims. Nor was she aspiring to become prime minister. It is all very well to praise politicians for being “authentic”, straight-talking and amusing. But in these edgy times, would it really be helpful for the country to be run by someone who freely dishes out insults and mockery?

Dirty work

After burqagate, wreathgate. Jeremy Corbyn is accused of laying a wreath in 2014 at the graves of leaders of the Palestinian terror group Black September, which carried out an attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, killing 11. Similar allegations were made in the run-up to the 2017 general election and they did Corbyn little harm. Nor did allegations about his relations with IRA terrorists.

We live in a world so preoccupied by what was posted on Twitter or Facebook five minutes ago that the IRA and Black September are regarded as ancient history. But the drip-drip effect of portraying Corbyn as a man who keeps unsavoury company continues, distracting attention from wages, benefits, housing, health, education and other issues that should be dominating the agenda to Labour’s advantage. Burqas, wreaths, Brexit: while we chatter about them, the Tories get on with their dirty work.

Last of the summer wine

Metropolitan rumour suggests that Paul Dacre, who has edited his last Daily Mail – his successor Geordie Greig, currently the Mail on Sunday editor, takes over on 1 September – could be poached by the rival Daily Telegraph. It seems improbable since Dacre has been a Mail man for nearly 40 years, and editor for the last 26, and the proprietor Lord Rothermere has rewarded him handsomely. He now holds what looks like a sinecure as chairman and editor-in-chief of the Mail’s publisher, Associated Newspapers. But he has in effect been kicked upstairs in favour of a bitter rival and firm Remain supporter who is sure to modify Dacre’s almost hysterical backing for Brexit.

The path between the Mail and the Telegraph is a well-trodden one. The columnists Peter Oborne and Simon Heffer are among those who stomp off from one to the other with bewildering frequency (four times in the latter’s case). When the Telegraph’s proprietors, David and Frederick Barclay, took over in 2004, they recruited several former Mail figures – unfondly known as “the last of the summer wine” – to senior positions.

The Barclays would need to offer Dacre more resources and freedom than they have allowed any previous editor. Envious of the Mail’s success, they may be willing to do so. The risk – that a highly successful career would end in inglorious failure – would be on Dacre’s side. But he could hope to see his pro-Brexit campaign through to a triumphant  conclusion and perhaps steal readers from Greig. Never underestimate an ousted editor’s bruised ego.

First of the summer gin

To Yorkshire, where my friend Paul Routledge, former Mirror and NS columnist and still a frequent Mirror contributor, takes me across the nearby Lancashire border to an agricultural show. At the unlikely hour of 10am, he has been asked to taste home-made fruit liqueurs (sloe gin, plum brandy, that sort of thing) and I am to assist him. One of last year’s judges stepped aside since he apparently imbibed 20-odd samples so conscientiously that he became incapable of a coherent verdict. Mindful of his fate, we spit out each liqueur after tasting – or most of them at any rate – as the professionals do. I am given the final say and promote (if memory serves me right) a yellow plum brandy over a sloe gin. Nobody questions the verdict and everybody laughs a lot.

No doubt similar events take place in the south. But I can’t help feeling that they wouldn’t be as much fun and the atmosphere would be more earnest, competitive and controlled.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad