Debunking the government’s NHS conference spin

It was David Cameron’s birthday last week. The big day was actually Friday, but the gifts began pouring in much sooner. An hour of conference-talk was enough to convince seemingly most of the political commentariat that the Conservatives are now the true guardians of left wing politics. Including the Blairite right, that is pursuing vengeance on the new leadership with such venom that it happily cheers Tory spin over anything Labour now says or does. Exactly how a party which is working away at, say, the Trade Union Bill – a legislative two fingers up to everything the Left stands for – can possibly be described as left-wing, I don’t know. Birthday treat perhaps. But if you want to see just how well David did last week, you need to look no further than the speech by his Secretary of State for Health. The fact that Jeremy Hunt could stand up and with a straight face say that the Conservatives want to be “the party of the NHS” is one thing; that so much of the press believed him and, more importantly, didn’t check that statement against the reality, is something else. I wonder if it occurred to him that there are currently 13 trusts in special measures, and 33 without chief executives, when he said “there is no greater privilege in government than being responsible for our NHS”. Even if the Department of Health didn’t lean on Monitor to delay a hideous set of financial figures until after the […]

The law students who took on the DWP

First published in the New Statesman, September 30th 2015 Law students had to help a man in debilitating pain fight being declared “fit to work” Disabled claimants are increasingly vulnerable, with justice more difficult to access, and the need to be reassessed after being declared “fit to work”, By Benedict Cooper The first Paul Crane knew of having his benefits cut off was when his landlord called up to ask where the rent was. It was the start of a harrowing time. After ten years of receiving support for debilitating pains – caused when gamma knife radiosurgery to repair a haemorrhage on his brain stem caused radiation damage to surrounding tissue – he had suddenly been declared “fit to work”. Paul’s life has never been the same since the operation, which repaired the haemorrhage but left parts of his brain and spinal cord permanently damaged. Every day he is haunted by stimuli – light, noise, crowded places – anything that sets off his “excitable nerves” will leave him in agony with migraines, cause numbness and dizziness, or leave part of his face sagging. Even sneezing or tiredness can cause a traumatic flare up. He says: “Tiredness causes pain and pain causes tiredness. I don’t socialise much, I’ve let people down too many times. I go fishing, which is my only relaxation but even that sometimes is too much”. Over a decade of suffering and being prescribed a cornucopia of drugs – none of which have fully worked – Paul has learnt to live with the pain. But a new regime at […]

Hunt thinks junior doctors lack “professionalism…

…and a sense of vocation”? Is he kidding? If Jeremy Hunt isn’t trying to rile the medical profession, he’s got a funny way of going about it. With tensions high and strike action on the cards, saying that contract reforms, the very source of the strain, will bring back “professionalism and a sense of vocation” to a career that attracts some of the most talented and dedicated people around is either a whole new level of crass or it’s designed to inflame. And inflame it has: on Saturday the BMA’s Junior Doctor Committee voted to ballot its members over strike action (or some other form of protest), which could happen within a few weeks. There could, and hopefully will be some agreement before then, but if NHS Employers are going to keep cancelling meetings with the BMA as they did Monday evening – possibly to avoid protests that were set to take place outside – it’s not looking too good. Ostensibly the reforms are about working towards a ‘7-day NHS’ service – nothing wrong with that. But let’s call this what it is: a way to pay doctors less and reduce the overall bill, plain and simple. Speaking in July at the Department of Health-sponsored procurement conference, P4H, which bills itself as the “largest event bringing buyers and sellers of the NHS together”, John Warrington, deputy director for policy and research in the procurement, investment and commercial division at the DH, said: “All the work that Lord Carter has done […]

Addenbrooke’s hospital is just the canary in the coal mine as far as the NHS is concerned

First published in the New Statesman A toxic cocktail of under-pressure local authorities and low staffing has the NHS on the brink. By Benedict Cooper Among the grim litany of charges laid out in the Francis Report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal, time and again short staffing came up. “It should have been clear,” the report said, “from the history and the nature of the deficiencies being reported, particularly in relation to staffing, that a dangerous situation had been allowed by the Trust leadership to develop and that urgent action and intervention were required”. It went on: “The complaints heard at both the first inquiry and this one testified not only to inadequate staffing levels, but poor leadership, recruitment and training”. Two and a half years later, have the lessons of that dark episode been learned? Today’s Independent would suggest not. It reports that out of 89 acute hospitals inspected between 2014 and 2015, three quarters raised concerns over staffing levels. Yesterday Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridgeshire became the latest acute hospital to be branded “inadequate” by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and the trust that runs it placed into special measures. “Inspectors found a significant shortage of staff in a number of areas including critical care services,” the CQC said in a statement. “This often resulted in staff being moved across different services, with gaps back-filled by bank or agency staff. After the long recess, it’s always a good time to reflect. Just as Parliament broke Jeremy Hunt was facing […]

Why didn’t Cameron give Dan Hodges a peerage?

“It’s not the professional Labourphobia and ceaseless smearing of the Left that bothers me. It’s the total unwillingness to hold the Conservatives to account”. Andrew Lansley got one, and his Health and Social Care Act has been one of the most catastrophic pieces of legislation in modern politics. It’s been condemned by the medical profession, activists, campaigners, even Conservative MPs, and given the Tories multiple headaches. If it wasn’t for such an indifferent electorate, it might have been much worse. So surely Dan Hodges, who has done more to distract the public from such sins and help the Tories back into power than almost anyone, should have been kicked something? To be a successful journalist you need a USP. It’s not enough to write well, have good ideas, even know the right people. You have to stand out, find that unique angle that nobody else has got. In the cynical arena of British political writing, there’s plenty of tribalism; plenty of exploitation of facts and words to paint your own team in a better light and more importantly, smear the other lot whenever possible. Every now and then there’s another category; the angry defector who switches over and gleefully pans his former comrades. But Dan has found even more of a specialism, a truly surreal position – as the Kevin Pieterson of political commentary. The former union man and Labour Party member-turned-ex-member-turned-member-again’s columns in the Telegraph receive rapturous applause from Conservatives and conservatives. And why wouldn’t they? I bet they […]

The Spokesman

An article I co-wrote with Zenn Athar for the Nottingham We Deserve campaigning newsletter was reproduced in The Spokesman, the publication founded by Bertrand Russell. The article is below.   The city has been on the front line of some of the most radical and, many argue, damaging reforms to the NHS since its creation. The Nottingham We Deserve investigates. by Benedict Cooper and Zenn Athar When five of the UK’s leading dermatologists quit the QMC in December, Nottingham was thrust into the middle of a gathering storm of political debate. To many their departure was the latest symbol of a health service breaking down, and a workforce under increasing pressure.The doctors wouldn’t be drawn on the issue, but sources quoted deep discomfort about a big decision that had quietly happened away from the public’s eye: the unit was to be run by Circle, a private company. Unite head of health Rachael Maskell says the case in Nottingham was a key moment for many campaigning against the growing influence of private healthcare companies like Circle in the service. “It showed the strength of feeling people have towards the NHS,” she says. “It’s not just an ideological step they took, it’s also a clinical point of view. The consultants were willing to forfeit their careers to protect care in Nottingham”. So why the strength of feeling? And what made the doctors quit? As activists in Nottingham and further afield know, the QMC case is just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere […]

There is no closure – just grief

New Statesman, August 28th 2015 The headlines about “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant. Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens. Not that Nottingham is alone – anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community […]

‘The triumph of Corbynism is the death rattle of New Labour’
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn, address delegates at the annual conference of the GMB union in Dublin.

This piece appeared in the New Statesman on August 18th 2015 Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Tony Blair is that his trademark brand of politics, the mastery of style-over-content, is alive and well in the Labour Party. For a while it wasn’t the third way: it was the only way. The ease with which New Labour swaggered onto the top table of the party, and then into Downing Street, was testament to its ability to beguile the left and the right with the same conjuring trick.  How have we come from that dazzling show to this crude spectacle of tearing our own insides out in public? All of Labour’s gory details and contradictions lie on the slab. The uncomfortable truth that this is an organism of incommensurable anatomical parts sharing a blood stream is there for all to see. I’ve been gripped by politics since my mid-teens, coincidentally, perhaps, just at the point that New Labour was at its zenith circa 1997.What I understand now, that I didn’t then, is that Blairism tried to thwart the core of the Labour Party that cares more about issues than power. Now, I understand where he and others are coming from when they talk about unelectability; I understand that you have to be in power, or at least a sizeable opposition, to make anything happen, and to do that you need broad appeal. Not that it matters, but this is not a ‘Why I’m supporting Candidate X.’ piece. What I’m certainly not shying […]

The right wing does the NHS

I realise that Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society and polemic Spectator columnist, may have ideological even political reasons to bemoan the “perils of a socialised [healthcare] system”. That’s hardly going to come as a shock. What is surprising is that such an elevated journalist as he is willing to let so many innacuracies stand in this careless denigration of the health service. But it’s a useful exercise – it proves that certain stripes within the right have set out to manipulate the truth about the NHS for ideological means. And why they’re wrong. (Incidentally my own writing on medical politics appears mainily on the New Statesman). Murray believes that “George Osborne refuses to seek savings in [the NHS] budget and promised an unbudgeted further £9 billion”. Perhaps he is not aware of the fact that the Simon Stevens’ plan to which he (presumably) refers, and to which the government is committed, also calls for £22bn worth of cuts as a quid-pro-quo? Much of the NHS has already been cut, drastically in fact. Not least Public Health -a fact, surely, he should be happy about. After all, most of his piece is taken up by a loathing for the role of the state in tying to educate the public about the perils of obesity, smoking and other killers, which he considers paternalistic sermonising. Murray says that the NHS is the “only untouchable force in the state”. Perhaps he is not aware of the implications of the Health and Social […]


New Statesman, July 28th 2015 We need to talk about Jeremy: why doctors are so angry with Jeremy Hunt [1] Jeremy Hunt is at the centre with another row with the medical profession. What’s going on? by Benedict Cooper [2] Published 28 July, 2015 – 09:35 First, do no harm. Photo: Getty Images The long summer break can’t have come too soon for Jeremy Hunt. In the last 10 days alone, two separate waves of vitriol from the medical profession have come crashing down on him, and as he scarpers off to sun himself he must be wondering what type of mood he’ll be coming back to. First there was the #Iminworkjeremy [3] campaign, a fierce rebuttal of Hunt’s attack on the BMA [4] over consultants’ supposed unwillingness to work seven days. This must have seemed like a breeze though, compared with the last week’s bruising.  Cue #weneedtotalkaboutjeremy [5], an even angrier backlash sparked by the government’s response to a petition which has gathered more than 200,000 signatures (and rising), calling for a debate of no confidence in the Secretary of State. The reply was meant to silence the mob – it’s had the opposite effect, and been branded as “manipulative and misleading” by Dr Hamed Khan [6] who I know speaks for many doctors out there. The whole saga has yet further uncovered a bitter divide, a growing rift between the Secretary of State for Health and the medical profession. Yes, the government’s response to the no-confidence petition made […]

Nursing in crisis

This piece appeared in PRN Magazine in July 2015 Nursing in crisis: The disappearing numbers   A pay-freeze, a row over safe staffing and new rules to kick thousands of nurses out of the country: it’s been a stormy summer in medical politics. Benedict Cooper reports. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the government has it in for the nursing profession. In the last two months alone, a string of policies have put pressure on a workforce already in strife, and laid some shaky stones to step over next.First NHS England asks NICE to halt an investigation into safe staffing – to the approval of the Department of Health but the dismay of safe staffing campaigners. Then the Home Office chips in with tough new rules to deport non-EU migrants earning less than £35,000 a year, which the RCN says could lead to the loss of 7,000 nurses. And, finally, to round off a torrid month, in his budget the Chancellor delivers the news that the pay freeze on all public sector workers is to continue – for four more years. “Getting tough on migrants might play out well with the public, but anyone who has worked in an NHS hospital knows how crucial these workers are for the service.” Take any one of these decisions in isolation, and you will find nurses reeling as a result. Take them all together, and it begins to feel like a concerted effort. Getting tough on migrants might play out well with the […]

The quiet exodus of GPs

This article appeared in the New Statesman in July 2015 George Osborne quietly slipped into his budget some news that the medical staff perhaps dreaded, perhaps didn’t even imagine was possible: the public sector pay freeze will continue. For another four years. I’ll just let that sink in. For months, doctors and nurses have been begging the public and the government to take notice: pressure on the wards is building to dangerous levels. Medical staff are overworked, under-appreciated and underpaid, and now there’s this insult to injury – a further slap in the face from a Chancellor unwilling to reward their graft with a share of the recovery, for which they have already sacrificed so much. It’s so far from justice, such a total misdirection of priorities, it’s taken this long to process. The Conservatives are on such a high at the moment that judgement seems to be on hold. Back in April at the health election debate, Jeremy Hunt barely managed to defend the Health and Social Care Act, on which the Conservative government’s entire health record will be judged. But last week he unveiled a policy that could only have made it into the X-rated version of the Health and Social Care Act. And his explanation for why printing the cost of a prescription, with the words ‘Funded by the taxpayer’ on the box would help patients and not just leave them guilt-ridden as well as sick, was so unconvincingly delivered on Question Time that I doubt it would […]

Greece: a word from the wise

From Will Hutton’s Them and Us (2010); Chapter 6 ‘Blind Capital’ “The new credit default swap (CDS) was meant to insure the holder of a security against default, but in fact it did little more than provide the means to speculate on the price of bonds, rather as currency options could be used to speculate on currencies. Again, there was no insurable interest: the CDS was not an insurable premium but a gambling chip. Buy a CDS in a bank or country debt, and as soon as there was concern about the credit-worthiness of the loan the price of the CDS would rise. Hedge funds buying CDSs in incredible volume would be key destabalisers during the banking crisis – the trigger for both Bear Stearns’ and Lehman’s demise – and later triggers of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe. It was massive buying of CDSs on Greek government debt in April 2010 that forced the massive EU and IMF bail-out.”  

The time bomb at the heart of the NHS

This article appeared in the New Statesman on July 1st 2015 Staffing: the time bomb at the heart of the NHS There’s an unnerving continuity at the Department of Health: a maddeningly consistent split between two realities. First there’s what’s going on in the wards, in the hearts and minds of the profession. Then there is what ministers like Jeremy Hunt and Ben Gummer say at the despatch box. The DoH must be aware, for example, that on Tuesday the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) voted 99.4 per cent in favour of a motion to lobby to reinstate the investigation by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) into staffing levels, scrapped by Simon Stevens earlier this month. It was one of the urgent recommendations of the Francis Report after Mid-Staffordshire: someone needs to look into safe staffing levels, now. Not long later, NICE got on the case. Results had started to come in, guidance was being formulated. Jeremy Hunt, Ben Gummer and others must know that the RCN, safe staffing campaigners and other experts were incensed by the decision to halt this investigation, announced by Stevens without warning in a speech to the NHS Confederation in Liverpool. But in case they missed it, the full wording of the RCN motion was pretty unequivocal: “That this meeting of RCN Congress deplores the decision to halt the current work by NICE on safe staffing and calls for RCN Council to lobby for the reversal of this decision that puts patients at […]

Tory donor runs agency fund

‘Chief executive of firm accused of ‘ripping off’ NHS on staffing is a Tory donor’ The chief executive of a private equity firm that owns one of the staffing agencies accused by the government of “ripping off” the NHS is a major donor to the Conservative Party, The Independent can reveal. Ramez Sousou, founder and co-chief executive of transatlantic private equity firm TowerBrook Capital Partners, which owns Independent Clinical Services (ICS), has donated just under half a million pounds to the party since 2010, including more than £75,000 since his company bought ICS last year. Mr Sousou founded TowerBrook in 2005 and retains a stake in the company. His wife, Tiziana Cantoni, who is not connected to TowerBrook, has also donated personal funds to the party. On Tuesday the Government announced a drive to crack down on agencies providing nurses to NHS trusts, which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said are ripping off hospitals with “extortionate” fees. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Hunt said: “We will wrestle the initiative away from expensive staffing agencies that have been ripping off our hospitals with their exorbitant rates, and insist nationally negotiated frameworks are used instead, which make use of the NHS’s collective bargaining power.” The move came after it emerged that a number of companies have experienced a surge in their revenue from supply staff to the NHS over the past four years. Of these, ICS was identified as a major beneficiary, enjoying a 60 per cent increase in revenue between 2011 […]

The market is reaping as Hunt sows
Open Democracy

This article appeared on Open Democracy: Our NHS on Tuesday June 2 The market is reaping as  Jeremy Hunt sows Tough talk by the Health Secretary on NHS agency costs belies the fact that the problem occured on his watch – and as a result of his government’s market policies. Today’s announcement on reducing the costs of agency nursing staff sounds like good old Tory get tough stuff. The NHS “needs to deliver its side of the bargain, which is to make efficiency savings”, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said today. He continued: “Can we really afford the kind of care we all want? With a strong economy, the answer is yes – but only if we care as much about every pound the NHS spends as every patient it treats. Because money wasted is money that can’t be spent on those needing care.” But Hunt’s greatest efficiency here is with the truth behind the wastage. The Public Accounts Committee repeatedly warned him that Trusts’ finances are being squeezed as they are forced to rely on agency staff. But under Hunt’s watch, the money spent on agency fees soared to record highs. “Hunt ignored agency issue and [is] guilty of neglect”, Alan Maynard, Emeritus Professor of Health Economics at York University commented today. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) revealed in February how spending on agency nurses leapt from £327m in 2012/3, to £486m in 2013/4 – and is predicted to be just shy of £1 billion in the last financial year. And […]

The blind faith of the right (+what’s left for the left)
Sanctioned 001

‘Sanctioned’ by Dani Lafez. Dani’s artwork is for sale here – proceeds go to arthritis research.  The blind faith of the right  (and what’s left for the Left)   Dani is a very poorly lady. Severe rheumatoid arthritis is attacking her spine, she has a snapped lumbar ligament, and last week after a gruelling eight needles were injected into her vertebra, an x-ray revealed that a hoped operation to fuse two of the disks in her back wouldn’t be possible because the surrounding disks have disintegrated too much. At the age of 26 she is facing the rest of her life taking morphine, by 40 she is likely to be in a wheelchair, and she has been told that the prospects of her body being able to bear a child are almost non-existent. But these aren’t her only troubles. A month ago she was sanctioned by the DWP. It’s been a tough month. Dani’s been handed around from person to person, with vague explanations given, such as her partner being in ‘full time work’ now (it’s an apprenticeship and he’s on £3.25/hour) and a so-called administrative error in which a ‘change of circumstance’ application Dani had to fill out didn’t have a due date on it. By the time she had gathered the masses of personal medical information the DWP required, only five days later, it was too late. No benefits for a month. At the next ‘infringement’ the sanction will be for 13 weeks. – Dani is one of […]

We tried

I won’t lie, I felt pretty abject on May 8th. So many hopes shattered, so many people now entering frightening unknowns, feeling insecure, threatened, battle-weary; so much disappointment, so many careers dashed and prospects ruined. This is the reality which a whole nation of healthcare workers woke up to the day after the election. Because we the Left could not persuade you the voting public what was at stake yesterday. I’m sorry. I’m sorry we could not speak over the volume of a right-wing press complicit in the dismantling of our greatest public service. We could not persuade the BBC to give you the facts, or ask the government the right questions on your behalf. Lacking all conviction, we tried. We tried to spell it out. Four years ago 400 health professionals and experts publically condemned the Health and Social Care Act, hoping to get your attention, saying the Bill would “erode the NHS’s ethical and cooperative foundations, and [would] not deliver efficiency, quality, fairness or choice”. You ignored them. Since then countless experts not driven by political ambition – the BMA, the Royal College of GPs, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal College of Nursing– have pleaded with the government to think again. They have all been dismissed by the government, which knew better. And those professionals who pleaded for mercy have since seen their budgets squeezed, pay frozen, wards shut and services fragmented. The “moral economy” which once gave NHS hospitals “almost a family atmosphere”, to quote a nurse […]