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Political pressure is on in this age of entitlement

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As we approach the general election, there is a frenzied bidding war for the contents of a shrinking pot of cash, one with many rivals. But playing politics with hospitals, countries and newspapers can rebound on the parties


Were you pleased when Nick Clegg told his party conference that the Lib Dems’ goal for future health policy will be parity of esteem between physical and mental ailments, free of the stigma the latter still carry?

Of course, you were. How could anyone with awareness of the pent up demand out there not be pleased?

‘Voters are sceptical about what austerity Britain can afford’

It triggered immediate bids for more attention and funding. Within days we heard how mental illness in prison - “five suicides a day” - is neglected; how up to 600 mentally disabled people are “lost” in the hospital system; and even how our collective failure to address mental health issues during and after pregnancy may end up costing £8bn a year in the long term.

Rather a high figure, I mused, without seeking to disparage the concern: most families, including mine, have experienced mental illness linked to birth. But it all costs money, and voters are sceptical about what austerity Britain can afford, even more so if, as feared, recession stalled Europe drags us back under.

Bidding war begins

What we seem to be facing six months out from the 7 May election is a frenzied bidding war for the contents of a shrinking pot of cash, one with many rival bidders.

At its simplest are the “pay our 1 per cent rise” radiographers I saw protesting cheerfully - “honk your horn if you supports us” - outside my local hospital this week.

Unions, think tanks and royal colleges all demand extra emergency funding to keep wheels on the NHS wagon.

‘We are facing a frenzied bidding war for the contents of a shrinking pot of cash’

Monitor’s chief executive David Bennett - a former Number 10 man and no shroud waver - this week called for unspecified billions, including £1bn for a “change fund” to promote non-hospital services, above the coalition’s 2010 ringfence formula.

It guards only against inflation, not against obesity; booze related liver disease (at 11,000 deaths, up 40 per cent in 12 years); and the grey tsunami that is old age - even good lifestyle choices eventually cost. So will Tuesday’s miracle news, courtesy of British research, that a Bulgarian man with a severed spine is walking again.

The age of entitlement

How do politicians respond to such myriad pressures in the age of entitlement?

Alas, by making hollow promises. Ed Miliband was at it again this week, promising that NHS England cancer patients will wait no more than a week between GP referral and hospital tests results. It will be funded by a £150m sin tax on tobacco firms.

Steady on there, Ed. One cancer size does not fit all, even in tabloid land.

And tax revenues are falling - £30bn lower than expected with high economic growth - for several reasons including tax dodging, tobacco smuggling. I don’t think people believe this stuff. Many prefer to believe in Nigel Farage’s magic wand school of politics.

But Labour remains ahead on health issues. So what does Tory HQ do to neutralise it?

‘Greater freedom for hospitals and newspapers also means freedom to make mistakes’

It organises a Welsh Tory survey of failings in NHS Wales under Labour rule in Cardiff. The NHS loving Daily Mail (rarely interested in Wales except for scandal) ran page upon page this week when not upbraiding NHS England. Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems piled in.

There is plenty wrong in Welsh healthcare; it’s a poor country, and devolution does not make it richer, whatever Alex Salmond says.

But it’s cynical, short sighted stuff, not just because I can’t find any Mail Online reference to Musgrove Hospital in Taunton and Somerset Foundation Trust’s inability to publish its report on a botched private sector eye operations contract for fear of legal action.

No, greater freedom for hospitals, countries or newspapers also means freedom to make mistakes. Playing party politics with them will rebound on the parties.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

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