Blair should visit our crisis hit NHS

STRANGE as it may seem, opinion polls suggest the public has more trust in the Conservatives to protect health services than Labour, despite the billions of extra investment pumped into hospitals since 1997.

By Graham Dines

STRANGE as it may seem, opinion polls suggest the public has more trust in the Conservatives to protect health services than Labour, despite the billions of extra investment pumped into hospitals since 1997.

Labour strategists are mystified, the Chancellor is clearly rattled, and the Prime Minister can't understand why the great British public has such short memories.

Since Labour came to power, more doctors and nurses have been recruited, waiting times for appointments and operations have been reduced, cancer treatment waiting times are virtually non existent, and cardiac care rates have dramatically improved.

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The problem for Labour is that while all this may be true, the good news is being masked by the appalling financial mess that some primary care and hospital trusts in England now find themselves in, which is leading to the closure of community hospitals, acute beds and operating theatres, accident and emergency units, and the sacking of front line staff and other health workers.

I'm often pilloried by Labour insiders and activists for being biased in the way investment in the health service is being reported.

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But I can only look at it from the perspective of East Anglia. How stupid I would look if I caved into Labour's demands to paint an “accurate reflection” of how great the NHS is when the reality is that Ipswich Hospital is £24m, in debt. Colchester General Hospital's £167m. PFI has been abandoned, the PFI project at Chelmsford's Broomfield Hospital is on hold, the West Suffolk in Bury St Edmunds might lose its A&E unit, and numerous community hospitals are being closed or are under threat.

The only plus is the £43m Garrett Anderson A&E unit under construction at Ipswich Hospital.

It's fine for Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt to say, as she continually does, that the NHS has never been in finer shape. But on the ground in East Anglia, it is ailing.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats believe that the Government has skewed health funding towards Labour voting areas, forcing England's shires to make do with below average allocations.

Ms Hewitt was at it again this week. The first major acute hospital closure to be announced in the East of England is at Hemel Hempstead, which is losing its A&E in favour of Watford, and acute operations will now be carried out in St Albans.

Hemel's Tory MP Mike Penning challenged the Health Secretary on the fairness of people in her Leicester West constituency receiving £1,300 per head in health finding compared to the £960 in Hemel.

“I am satisfied that funding allocations are fair,” she said. “I believe that reflects the very real differences in health areas, in the prevalence of disease between our two constituencies.

“Your constituents have the good fortune to be significantly healthier than my constituents. It seems to me absolutely right and fair that those with greater health needs get better funding than patients with better health and less health needs, who get less funding.”

I'm sorry Ms Hewitt, that's absolute tosh. If people live longer in East Anglia than Leicester, then it puts health care for the elderly under pressure and in need for extra cash.

The NHS is undergoing yet another reform. What's happening in the East of England is that hospitals and trusts have been told to wipe out historic debts by the end of this financial year but have to make do with less central government funding, which is leading to a squeeze on patient services and the abandonment of community facilities.

The Government's aim is to treat more people at home than in hospital. But unless resources are put into domiciliary care, that policy will collapse.

The Prime Minister clearly believes that hardship in East Anglia and other areas is for the greater good. No gain without pain - underperforming hospitals have to be dragged into 21st century to make the NHS “fit for purpose”.

At question time this week, Tory MPs for Worthing (Tim Loughton) and Milton Keynes (Mark Lancaster) complained at cuts in their local hospital services. Mr Blair would have none of it.

He preached at Mr Loughton: “As a result of the investment that we have made in the National Health Service, which he opposed, there are 4,500 more nurses in his strategic health authority and almost 600 more consultants.”

And to Mr Lancaster, he snapped: “It simply is not right to give the example that he gives without putting the other side of the picture, because it is also true that we have funded a £130 million scheme to concentrate all clinical services on one site and provided a new angiography treatment unit, a new GP practice, 5,500 more nurses and almost 800 more consultants in his area.”

He added: “Yes, there will be changes in any health service - there should be changes as the changing pattern of health care demands them. In the past few years, we have increased the number of people working in the health service, cut the waiting times and lists dramatically. We have. We have the largest hospital building programme ever under way and the fact is that the hon. Gentleman's party, having first opposed the extra money for the health service, is now opposing the reform.”

To the Prime Minister, Ms Hewitt, and Labour's spin doctors, I simply say: come and see for yourselves. Remove your rose tinted glasses, venture into the region and explain to health care professionals and patients just why plans at the Broomfield in Chelmsford are on ice, why Colchester has had its PFI scrapped, and just what advantage is to be gained from closing community beds in Suffolk.

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