Tom Peterkin: NHS should not be political football

The most pressing policy question facing the NHS has always been how to finance a free-at-the-point of delivery service
The most pressing policy question facing the NHS has always been how to finance a free-at-the-point of delivery service
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Given the ferocious kicking that age-old political football – the NHS – had during the referendum campaign, it is understandable that there should be those who believe there must be a better way to deal with health policy than to leave it to warring politicians.

Hence Johann Lamont’s suggestion yesterday to establish an independent expert group to lead a consultation into the future of the NHS.

The Scottish Labour leader envisaged the group would gain cross-party support so that it had real power and not simply end up being a powerless talking shop.

On the face of it, attempting to promote a unified approach to tackling the challenges the NHS faces would appear to be a constructive suggestion. Indeed, it is backed by the BMA and nursing leaders.

Certainly, there is a need for a more positive approach to NHS politics. Labour’s anger over the Yes campaign’s claims that the devolved Scottish NHS was under threat from a No vote is still palpable.

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For as long as it has been in existence, the most pressing policy question facing the NHS has been how to finance a free-at-the-point-of-delivery service.

Squaring that circle has only become more difficult as advances in science have created ever more sophisticated treatments and ever more demand for those treatments at an ever increasing cost.

When these factors are combined with Scotland’s ageing population, it is easy to see that some tough discussions have to take place. Ms Lamont’s speech was an attempt to kick-start a more unified approach to looking at the future of the health service.

Or as she put it: “For too long party politics has got in the way of taking long-term decisions over our NHS. Time after time, vested interests have been put above patients.”

It remains to be seen, however, whether setting up yet another expert group is the solution. Already it seems unlikely that her proposal would receive the cross-party support the Labour leader desires. The health secretary, Alex Neil, reacted by accusing her of abdicating the responsibility of political leadership when faced with tough choices.

Ms Lamont’s response was that she was not suggesting that politicians should not make decisions. It was more that they shouldn’t be making decision on something as important as the NHS based on narrow party-political interest.

Nevertheless, one suspects that Mr Neil has a point. The phrase “expert group” conjures up images of a political football being belted into the long grass. Politicians are elected and paid to take tough decisions. They could also choose to take them in a mature and consensual manner. Any chance of that?