THERE are many times when the rhetoric of politicians does not ring true with the experiences people have. So last week at Prime Minister’s questions, when David Cameron declared that the NHS in England had been internationally recognised as “the best in the world” under his watch, I was left wondering just how bad things are abroad.
Recently, my dog and my son fell ill in the same week. The response to the two cases was starkly different. The family pet, covered by private health insurance, received an appointment with a vet within an hour of us calling and a follow-up appointment the next day.
Meanwhile, the local NHS GP surgery said my child could not have an appointment for two weeks. The only solution for him was to wait five hours at an NHS 24 centre with a long line of other people who could not see a GP. At the time, I was left wondering what sort of society looks after its animals better than its children.
Personal experiences can be one-offs, but the evidence is growing that, despite the ability of the NHS to “meet targets”, the NHS in England, at least, is creaking at best and on the verge of collapse at worst.
This is why nine senior health figures from charities and the NHS itself wrote to a national newspaper yesterday warning that new funding solutions will need to be found if the government cannot find an extra £30 billion to maintain the current service level. The suggestion was that in order to fund treatment, people will have to start paying at the point of service delivery.
One could argue that the NHS is free, but it is not; it accounts for just over 18p out of every £1 in tax each of us pays in the UK. For that sort of money, you can get very good health insurance.
It is hard to see politicians in Westminster agreeing to an end of the free-at-point-of-delivery principle, but if such a change is inevitable then it will have a dramatic change to the social contract which underpins public services for the whole of the UK. One could argue that dentists have led the way in this respect in terms of payment for treatment, but if people are forced to pay for everything, not just teeth, it will push many more to private insurance and lead to more questions over why the NHS accounts for so much of our taxes.
Any reduction in NHS funding will have knock-on effects for the amount of money going to Scotland and Wales, which run their own health services. But even if Scotland remains part of the UK and somehow maintains the free delivery principle on top of free prescriptions and no tuition fees, it will cause a crisis of confidence in the Union south of the Border far greater than the referendum being faced in September.