What do we expect from the National Health Service?

Andrew Marr and Theresa May

Andrew Marr and Theresa May

Prime Minister Theresa May, in her New Year live interview on Sunday, got quite a grilling from Andrew Marr. The Independent provides a video and report.

Marr described the case of Leah Butler-Smith whose mother waited five hours to be seen after a stroke this week. Ms Butler-Smith had posted a video of a queue of ambulances outside a hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, explaining that her mother had had a stroke, but was at the time tenth in a queue to get into hospital.

Marr then appealed to his own experience:

If I’d been waiting for five hours before I’d seen a doctor after my stroke, I would not be here talking to you. This is about life and death, and up and down the country people are having horrendous experiences of the NHS.

The Guardian ‘s Andrew Sparrow summarised her response:

May said she did not know about the case, and she recognised people would be concerned about such experiences. She added: “If we look at what is happening across the NHS, what we see is that actually the NHS is delivering for more people, it is treating more people and more people are being seen within the four hours every day than has been a few years ago. But of course nothing’s perfect and there is more for us to do.”

She brushed aside Marr’s argument that a £6bn cut in the social care budget was a factor. She said the government was working on a long-term plan for a sustainable solution to social care, but she would not give any details.

May was doing her best, but Marr was in touch with the situation. Zoe Williams adds:

The cancellation of scheduled operations this winter was “part of the plan”, according to May on today’s Marr show, which she thinks makes it OK; if it had been done on the hoof, that would have been chaotic…

The health service is plainly in chaos. Hospitals across the country… are at operational pressures escalation level (Opel) 4, previously known as “black alert”, a state in which trusts are “unable to deliver comprehensive care” and there is “increased potential for safety to be compromised”. The managerial language does nothing to obscure what this actually looks like: hundreds of people stranded on trolleys and in ambulances, people dying in waiting rooms. “Where multiple systems in different parts to the country are declared Opel 4, national action should be considered,” the guidelines state.

How important is it?

Governments have other priorities, not just health care. The complaints leave us asking: how much money should the nation be spending on health care, by comparison with other things? Is it okay to leave people waiting that long, knowing that some will die in the process, since money also has to be spent on preparing for Brexit, maintaining the roads and countless other things?

I think health care is a special case. The reason should be clear to anyone who accepts the Golden Rule:

Do to others as you would have them do to you. Luke 6:31, Matthew 7:12.

I’m quoting Jesus, but this doesn’t make it uniquely Christian. It’s a top-level ethical principle, general guidance about how we should treat other people. If we don’t accept it we’re making exceptions of ourselves, which is the road to selfishness.

Now let’s apply it. Suppose you were saving up a few thousand pounds for a new car, and you suddenly took ill. You need surgery, and the only way to get it is by spending the money you have saved.

Would you spend the money on the surgery, or would the new car still be your top priority? If you preferred the car, most of us would expect that the illness is neither painful nor life-threatening. Or maybe the car is essential to earning enough money to feed your family.

Either way, my point holds: when our health is threatened, all our other priorities pale into insignificance.

When we apply the Golden Rule to this, the implication is obvious.

Our health needs take priority over our other concerns. We know it’s true of ourselves. It’s true of everybody else too.

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