Donald Trump’s attempt to use the NHS’s troubles as an argument against universal healthcare succeeded in one thing at least – uniting everyone in the UK from Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to anti-austerity campaigners against him.
The health service may have its troubles, but they are our troubles to comment on, not yours, Mr President. However, in a sense, Mr Trump had a point. When he said the NHS was “going broke”, he was echoing the campaign slogan used by protesters over the weekend: “NHS in crisis – fix it now”. It is obvious to most that the health service is creaking, struggling to cope with increasing demands placed upon it. Staff are working hard to maintain the high standards they are used to and which have led many to regard the NHS as the finest health service in the world, but the pressure began to show long ago.
Many of the protesters detest Mr Hunt, but they may have been secretly pleased to hear him defend the idea that people should “get care no matter the size of their bank balance” in response to Mr Trump’s remarks, which were designed to defend the private healthcare system in the US.
“I may disagree with claims made on that march but not ONE of them wants to live in a system where 28 million people have no cover,” Mr Hunt said. Even journalist Piers Morgan told Mr Trump he was “wrong”, adding: “Our NHS is a wonderful, albeit imperfect, health system – and the envy of the world. By comparison, the US healthcare system is a sick joke and the envy of no-one.”
But we in the UK need to wake up to the fact that the current situation is untenable. The health service has been treated as an almost sacred body, part of the founding fabric of modern Britain, but the job we expect it to do has become bigger than our apparent willingness to pay for it. So the time is fast approaching when we are going to have to make big decisions about its future – and that means having a genuine debate. Should taxes go up? Do we need a dedicated health tax? Should the NHS do less? Should people be charged to visit a GP? Should NHS hospitals treat more patients privately, as is increasingly happening in England?
Compared to other developed nations, the UK spends relatively little on health. Healthcare on the cheap may have been good while it lasted, but time is running out.