Why Danny Boyle’s rose-tinted homage to the NHS was so damaging

Published in the London Evening Standard (July 30th, 2012)

The reviews are in, and the near-unanimous verdict on Danny Boyle’s extraordinary opening ceremony was that it was a hit — and unlike anything else in Olympic history. A crazed rollercoaster ride through British history and culture, somehow it captured this country’s unruly spirit of industry, innovation and bloody-minded independence.

I watched it unfold on a big screen at the Womad music festival. It was an uplifting communal experience as hundreds of people cheered the suffragettes, gasped as The Queen turned round, laughed at Rowan Atkinson’s antics and even stood for the national anthem.

Almost the only prominent voice of dissent was Tory MP Aidan Burley, a man whose presence in parliament proves his party’s modernisation project still has some distance to travel. His complaints about “Leftie multicultural crap” and rappers were — to quote the brilliant Dizzee Rascal — bonkers, revealing only Burley’s dismal failure to understand his country, its capital or even the century in which he is living.

For all his criticism, Boyle’s vision of Britain was in many ways a curiously conservative one, especially its 20-minute adoration of the National Health Service that so bemused visiting commentators. “For the life of me, am still baffled,” said Diane Pucin of the Los Angeles Times. “Like tribute to United Health Care or something in US.”

She was right to be baffled. There is something strange in sanctifying a system for delivering health care. We do not venerate the schools that educate our children, let alone the Tube trains that transport us to work. If Paris had won the Olympics, there would have been no dancing doctors and giant baby in its opening ceremony, even though its insurance-based service is often judged the world’s best.

Unfortunately, Britain’s misty-eyed myopia over the NHS — which will intensify now it is an official part of our island story — is a delusional, self-defeating national tragedy.

As he sought to repair the damage done by his idiotic tweets, Burley insisted we all love the NHS. Wrong again. For some of us who have seen its underbelly, there is little love for this anachronistic institution. As the father of a child with profound learning difficulties, I have seen too many blunders, too much insensitivity and too little care for the most vulnerable to share the national religion any longer.

In the words of the father of another disabled child, it is sickening to endlessly hear the mantra of what a great institution the NHS is from people who don’t rely on it and are therefore not engulfed in a near-daily struggle against its inertia and ineptitude.

Random checks by the health watchdog found concerns at more than half the hospitals inspected, underlining damning reports by the Patients Association. One in five hospitals was breaking the law with neglect of vulnerable patients, sometimes starved of food, denied water or simply ignored. For all the fuss over privatisation, the worst health scandal of recent times involved the deaths of several hundred patients in two NHS hospitals in Staffordshire in the most squalid of circumstances.

It may be painful but we need to face the harsh truth that half a century after its birth, this much-loved institution needs drastic surgery. It was designed for the world that existed in the aftermath of the Second World War, focusing on the fight against infant mortality, infectious disease and industrial injuries. The system was built around big hospitals, filled with phalanxes of all-powerful doctors and the latest expensive equipment.

But times have changed. Battles of the past have been won. Now we have an ageing society and this means more focus on long-term conditions such as cancer, dementia, depression and diabetes. There are also more disabled people, partly down to medical advances — although five in every six people with disabilities are not born with them.

These are the patients soaking up 70 per cent of health spending, not the high-profile emergency cases the NHS treats reasonably well. As health spending soars, with a £20 billion gap predicted to open in just three years, the NHS needs to serve them more efficiently and effectively if it is to survive.

This means closing hospitals; one report said six should shut in London alone. Then funds could be focused on helping patients live with disabilities, manage pain and cope with chronic conditions. We need to develop more personalised services based around the home and community, often with several agencies delivering care.

Many doctors accept this, even as their leaders fiercely protect traditional powers. Many politicians admit this privately, even as they publicly campaign against hospital closures and prostrate themselves in devotion to the NHS. This is why it is so infuriating for those of us who have experienced the failures and frustrations of the service to see the constant worship of an antiquated system that is no longer fit for its purpose.

Under this Government, run by a Prime Minister with genuine insight and gratitude for the health service, we saw a botched attempt at reform that was stumbling in the right direction. It was handled so dreadfully, while both Labour and Liberal Democrats behaved with such grotesque political opportunism, the parties collectively managed to set back a cause they all know is vital to the nation’s wellbeing.

One consequence is the Coalition will be blamed for whatever goes wrong as the election gets closer and the funding gap larger. Already, surveys have found falling satisfaction, while the Tories have undermined voters’ trust in them on public services. Now excited Labour activists believe Boyle has handed them the next election by making even David Cameron’s desire for moderate change seem heretical.

This may be pushing it — but he has helped their cause. Meanwhile the case for reform grows more urgent, the funding choices more stark. Ironically, the end result is that a sentimental segment of an otherwise exhilarating Olympic ceremony will only make it that much harder to save the very institution put on show with such pride to the world.

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