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Valentine daze

Politicians seduce us with sweet nothings about the NHS, when perhaps divorce is the answer

A pile of love heartsSpring is on the way and a young man's fancy turns to Viagra... well, all sorts of things, actually! The sap is rising. Valentine's Day is not far off and the price of roses can expect to double. Restaurants will feature a romantic steak Diane with pommes frites and charge double the usual price for a steak and chips and top it up with a £50 bottle of champagne that is twelve quid in the local supermarket. 

It will be impossible to book an amorous weekend away at a country house hotel without a loan from the IMF. Even a night in Scunthorpe's finest is £60, but forget it – it's fully booked.

Couple that with the fact that there is an election on the way and we are all vulnerable, susceptible and defenceless.

The Tories are already doing their best to seduce us. From a thousand poster sites an air-brushed David Cameron is looking down, his two-brain-forehead, polished and with a creepy cow-eyed look full of menace; an early Valentine for the NHS. Pity the road worriers, obliged to drive past the hazard five times a day!

Love at any price? Their latest stab at health policy is a 'draft' health manifesto; the first 'chapter' in a series of love letters that will form the basis of their pledges for a marriage in a few weeks' time.

If anyone can tell me what the point of a 'draft' manifesto is, I'd like to know. It's like making provisional marriage vows. Do they mean it or not? Do they mean all of it, some of it, bits of it? Which bits? This is a farce, a shambles and an embarrassment. Will they be running a draft government? Will the marriage guidance focus groups run the country, or someone with belief, vision and passion?

Like so many lovers, Cameron is capricious. In what was intended as a straightforward declaration of undying love, we have, at best, a token of affection and a good deal of confusion.

The five pages published in January fall short of the promises Cameron already made in the heat of passion, since the affair started in 2005. 

Getting the electorate into bed is going to be more difficult; the promise of 45,000 single hospital rooms has vanished. A promise to end hospital closures has gone the way of so many lovers' pledges, as have the 4,200 extra health visitors. Should a lover become pregnant, Cameron's will stand by them with the chill and distant promise of a Scandinavian-style maternity network of which the Royal College of Midwives appears silent and thunder-struck.

Cameron's billet doux is starting to look like a 'Dear John' letter to the BMA. Already enraged by a battle with Labour, the Tories look an equally demanding partner as they, too, want the doc's to embrace longer opening hours.

Should a love potion be required, a new 'value-for-money' test for drugs looks like it can only mean a costly divorce from the NHS's once favourite daughter. Glamorous and alluring, NICE now looks care-worn, constantly nags everyone in sight and complains like a fish-wife.

The jealous pharma-beau stands ready to sweep the naive DoH off its feet and back into its trembling and whimsical arms. 

Beware of soporific pillow-talk: 'real-terms funding increases', taking into account NHS inflation and growth in demand, can only mean a cut.

Re-directing funding to the 'poor' means better data and sidelining primary care trust structures. Sharing funding with local authorities? Remember, much of social services is means-tested and is an avaricious lover.

Like a moth, mesmerised in its tryst with a flame, beware of being singed by the blaze from the bonfire of targets Cameron is promising. Watch as ten years of consistent, popular, patient-delighting achievements end in ashes.

Health records online? The Tories had turned their back on Connecting-for-Health. Will they rekindle a spark and discover a new love for IT?

We have other suitors: Nick Clegg the LibDem lothario. He is also turning his back on promises made in the heady days when we were all intoxicated by money. Free child care is gone from his promise-list, as is free care for the elderly.

Our long-time lover and partner, Labour, is like a husband who needs to be reminded that it is Valentine's Day. Cuts, reorganisation and redundancy will have some of us looking for a divorce.

For the politicians, the NHS is a difficult suitor; irritating inefficiencies are the price we pay for universal access to a service that is loved and admired by the rest of the relatives.  Right now it takes care of more of us, faster and better than at any time in its history. It's like an Italian momma, no longer a Lollobrigida, but warm, comfortable, reliable – and makes us feel great with a prescription for a stunning bolognaise!

But, as is the way of so many lovers, the NHS says 'no' when is means 'yes' and should say 'no' when it has already said 'yes'.

Does it need a new suitor? Is Cameron a Casanova or a Lord Darcy? Lothario Clegg, or whoever the Labour party might persuade to take on the job – are they likely to protect the fidelity of the world's favourite health service?

Perhaps the NHS needs no suitor. The best promise is gone – a pledge made in haste and gone from the list – the Tory idea to divorce the NHS and run it with an independent board in the same way as the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee.

Moving the NHS from the suffocating embrace of politicians has enormous attractions. It takes nerve to end an affair but sometimes – if you love someone enough, you have to let them go.

The Author
Roy Lilley is a (sometimes controversial) healthcare author and broadcaster.

To comment on this article, email

11th February 2010


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