The BBC calls Stephen Hawking ‘the most recognisable scientist of all time’ – for obvious reasons.
The BBC news journalist Ellie Price called Jeremy Hunt ‘Jeremy C***’ live on air – perhaps also for obvious reasons.
So what happens when a world-renowned scientist and the Secretary of State for Health go up against each other, arguing over the NHS? Well, it’s pretty interesting…
What’s the story?
The short version is that Stephen Hawking gave the keynote speech at a conference for the Royal Society of Medicine in London, and had some pretty damning things to say about the NHS and the running of it (the mistakes of which were attributed by the scientist to Jeremy Hunt). In his speech, Hawking said he is worried about the future of the NHS, and the involvement of the private sector in NHS England. (Source: BBC)
The claims have more context than one might originally think, as the conference itself was arranged to air ‘concerns’ about the future of the NHS. Stephen Hawking readily admits that he ‘would not be here’ if it were not for the NHS – however this didn’t seem to stop him from criticising many aspects of the health service. The issue at the forefront of his speech was the danger of the profit being reaped by the private sector in their use of both resources and agency staff that should be being put to use in the public sector.
In his speech, Hawking mentioned Jeremy Hunt by name, saying the Health Secretary had ‘cherry-picked’ evidence from the NHS to support his policies, leaving out figures which might make the policies look less-than ideal. Mr Hunt replied via the medium of twitter, calling the comments ‘pernicious’ (Source: BBC). The Department of Health responded by releasing a statement saying that extra money was being invested in the NHS, and it had recently been ranked as a ‘top-performing health system’.
Why is this important?
For somebody like Stephen Hawking to critcise the NHS is more important than might first be thought. His motivation to speak, he said, came from the massive role that the health service has played throughout his life.
For instance, in 1985, the Professor contracted pneumonia in Switzerland – an illness that is particularly dangerous for somebody with motor neurone disease as advanced as his then was. The medical team in Switzerland suggested that there was no hope, and his ventilator should be turned off, and his life ended. Ever the survivor, Hawking and his wife refused to accept this, flew back to the UK, and his life was subsequently saved by the NHS. He has also had throat reconstruction surgery to enable him to eat and breathe more easily. In testament to the health service, he said:
“I have had a lot of experience of the NHS and the care I received has enabled me to live my life as I want and to contribute to major advances in our understanding of the universe”
So the fact that he has some grave concerns is not good. His worries over an increase of provision of private care are important, because it marks a move of the NHS that brings it a lot closer to the US-style of paying for better treatment – a notion that strongly contradicts with the ethos of the National Health Service, created in 1948 by Aneurin Bevan to provide universal access to healthcare.
Contradicting the statement made by many that we ‘cannot afford the NHS’, Hawking insisted, ‘we cannot afford not to have the NHS’. One of the things that Hawking said would improve the health service was a wider availability of services at the weekend, an issue of much contention amongst doctors and nurses who are already stretched thinly across week-day shifts.
Mr Hunt’s response is important because it shows a suspicious avoidance of most of the points raised by the scientist. On twitter, he stated that Stephen Hawking’s comments were a ‘most pernicious faleshood’, and that he was a ‘brilliant physicist but wrong on the lack of a weekend effect’. He did not respond to Professor Hawking’s comments on the privatisation of the NHS, instead focusing on the money and medical staff that the Conservative party has provided, and the ‘most comprehensive ever’ study into mortality rates at weekend NHS services.
The worrying thing about this is that, if the NHS were privatised under the excuse that it is the only way to fund it, healthcare would cease to be available for all, and instead benefit those who were able to pay. Those suffering from diseases like Stephen Hawking may well not be able to afford the extensive health care necessary to preserve their quality of life, and this would mean a huge change in the overall character of our country, which has long been respected by others for providing healthcare for all. Mr Hunt quoted figures that suggest people are moving away from private health insurance, as the number of people who have it is down 9.4% since 2009 (Source: BBC). This, however, does not much placate anybody who shares Professor Hawking’s concerns:
“The more profit is extracted from the system, the more private monopolies grow and the more expensive healthcare becomes. The NHS must be preserved from commercial interests and protected from those who want to privatise it”.
The government responded by pointing out that only 8% of NHS funding goes to the private sector (Source: BBC). What they did not clarify was whether or not this number is up or down compared to previous years. It is up, by a big way. In fact, the figure has risen by 18% (which equates to £147m) since 2015/2016 (Source: Financial Times). Funny how Mr Hunt didn’t mention that.
The NHS has long been a source of pride for many Britons, but this seems to be diminishing rapidly. If someone who has benefited as much as Professor Stephen Hawking still has serious concerns about the NHS, should we have similar concerns? And are Jeremy Hunt’s replies to the concerns sufficient, or do they leave worrying gaps? Surely the Health Secretary should be in a position to strongly deny any possibility of the privatisation of the NHS? One would hope so, but it seems not. What’s the next step for the NHS, and how will this (like everything else) be battered by Brexit? Watch this space, I have a feeling it might not be all positive…