Junior doctors are warning us
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This article first appeared in the New Statesman on January 15 2016 Junior doctors aren’t just going on strike. They’re trying to warn us There’s a bigger story than just pay and conditions, warns Benedict Cooper. By Benedict Cooper On a bitterly cold afternoon in Nottingham’s Old Market Square, a group of junior doctors stood shivering together, banners in hand, pleading with the people hurrying by in thick winter coats and scarves to listen to their reasons for why they and colleagues throughout England are on strike. A few stopped, tapping their feet in the chill air; some even signed their petition. On the surface it’s about pay. But there’s something more serious going on – a lesson we ignore at our peril. Doctors are deeply concerned about safety on the wards. Why do they feel they have to take to the streets to tell people, rather than going through the official channels? Because that’s a dangerous game as well. Take the case of Dr Chris Day. When Day qualified in 2009, the idea that he was destined to cross swords with the Secretary of State for Health would have seemed ludicrous. Now he is embroiled in a dispute with the highest levels that has implications for the future of the controversial, and often misunderstood practice of ‘whistleblowing’. It all started one night back in January 2014. Day was working through the night on ICU at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, part of Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Trust. When two locum doctors […]

Hunt thinks junior doctors lack “professionalism…
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…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 […]

There is no closure – just grief
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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 right wing does the NHS
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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 […]

Nursing in crisis
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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
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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 […]

On the trail…
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…with the March for the NHS A few shots from another wonderful gathering arranged by the People’s Vote for the NHS. It was held in Nottingham on March 28th, with a large crowd marching from the Forest Recreation Ground into the Market Square, where a host of great speakers including organiser Rehan Azam, Green Party PPC Lydia Davies-Bright, local nurse Lisa Clarke and others addressed the crowd.  

NHS: the hard questions
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…If the Today programme won’t ask the difficult questions about the NHS, I will When David Cameron woke up this morning, surely he must have had a little tingle of nerves about his appearance on the Today show. On the NHS alone, his record as PM has left enough questions to fill the whole three hour show; surely a short sharp burst from Sarah Montague was going to be an excruciating experience. Today’s researchers had plenty to choose from. For years, long before that insidious document, the Health and Social Care Act was enforced on the system, alarm bells have been ringing. The BMA, the Royal College of GPs, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal College of Nursing, countless doctors, nurses, academics, public policy experts, unions, campaigners – in the interests of word count I’ll leave it there – have been warning, no pleading with the government to change course, and for the public to wake up to the ominous reality of what the Act means. But to Hell with what they think. Without even acknowledging a word of it, the only person our Prime Minister chose to quote today was Simon Stevens – a private healthcare man charged with reforming the public NHS. Of course, this is hardly a surprise. Cameron isn’t likely to quote the medical professionals who actually have to carry out the work (unlike me, see below). When you’re lead around by Oliver Letwin, the author of public-service destruction manual ‘Privatising the World‘, you’re not […]

NHS Reinstatement Bill
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A new Bill plots the way back for the NHS – but it’s not Labour who are behind it First published in the New Statesman on Wednesday March 11th Later today, in the dusk of this parliament, a new Bill will get its first and perhaps only reading in the Commons. It’s unlikely to set pulses racing in any of the main party machines, but in certain circles the NHS Bill [3] represents the last ditch to save a dying public service. It is the result of three years of patient work led by two leading public health experts, Professor Allyson Pollock and Peter Roderick of the Centre for Primary Care and Public Health at Queen Mary, University of London. In the bill, they say, lies a trail of breadcrumbs to take us back to a different era. A time before the Health and Social Care Act; before the NHS was such fertile ground for profiteers. A time when money allocated for patient care wasn’t routinely squandered on futile bidding wars, failed private experiments, a contrived internal market and debilitating PFI repayments. “We’ve been working on this ever since the Health and Social Care Act came in,” says Allyson Pollock, speaking to me earlier this week. “We knew this time would come. What we’ve got in the Health and Social Care Act is a destructive reorganisation which has started the breakup of the NHS. “If we don’t bring in legislation then privatisation and the breakup of the service will continue; […]

Labour’s murky PFI past
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The following article appeared on the New Statesman’s online blog, The Staggers in July 2014 To save the NHS, Labour must face the ugly truth of PFI debts Labour is right to focus on rescuing the NHS from the harm done by this government, but must face the truth that it was the party that introduced private finance into the health service in the first place. Ed Miliband has said that this is going to be an “NHS summer”. He has sensed, rightly, that there’s something in the air, a tension over the precarious health service. Strain on services is rising, the number of hospitals in the red is surging up, patient concern is growing and doctors are quitting in disgust at the ominous developments from the top. As much as the coalition would love to suppress them, the figures point towards a potential full-blown crisis before the parliamentary term is through. In August, campaigners will march for 300 miles, through 23 towns from Jarrow to London to press home these fears, and there are activists up and down the country straining just to get the same message across to the public: the NHS is in danger.   http://www.newstatesman.com/staggers/2014/07/save-nhs-labour-must-face-ugly-truth-pfi

Revolutiony Wutiony
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Once upon a time, I was invited to watch a man masturbate. It was a show in an artist’s bedroom, where, to the gathered audience, the sound of a drum and the background of a poetry recital, he was going to indulge in a long drawn-out wank, and bring himself to climax. I declined. But I’ve often thought perhaps I should have gone. I’ve tried to picture the scene, and me standing there, and wondered how I would have felt. Whether it might have drawn some conservative, reactionary indignation from me. Or whether it might, in fact, have been fascinating and resonate with meaning. I’ll never know now. But I imagine it feeling a bit like watching Russell Brand at work. Often when I read a Russell Brand comment piece, or see his face on TV, those big doe-eyes backlit with a burning ego, or, these days, when I see him on a stage addressing his legions, I get the same sensations I imagine I would have felt standing in that artist’s bedroom. Russell took his t shirt off for the revolution today. He bore his chest (not, of course, for the frisson of sexual excitement that it gave him) to the 50,000 strong-crowd and proclaimed the revolution alive and well. He believes his “peaceful, effortless and joyful” revolution is going to change the world. He urges people not to vote; to end the disconnect between politicians and the public. He believes in Socialist egalitarianism and a “massive re-distribution of […]