Philip Whiteley's Blog

May 11, 2011

Cancer in the NHS

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 11:25 am

When the former BBC TV news presenter John Singleton reminisced a year or two ago about covering the Brixton riots in 1981, he related how he took the time to talk to many young black men in the south London suburb. He heard from one describing being arrested and beaten up, having committed no crime; but thought maybe it may be a one-off, or an exaggerated tale. ‘But then I heard another, and another, and another; and we realised that they can’t all be lying – there is a real problem here.’

I’ve been reminded of this anecdote in the past couple of months in some heated debates that I have had on social media about the health service. I have had the temerity to complain that standards in NHS hospitals are often poor – and worse than 20-30 years ago, when I was first a social worker and later a health and social care news reporter.

When I try to raise the issue, the defenders of the NHS angrily denounce me for relying on ‘anecdote’. I then point to the sheer extent of anecdote (as Singleton heard in 1981 in Brixton) and to public reports on the scandals at Maidstone and Staffordshire, where hundreds of patients died due to neglect, and to reports of MRSA and the need for ‘deep cleaning’, and a damning official report on neglect of elderly patients. Instead of acknowledging this, my online debaters raise the required evidence threshold further (for my points; no evidence at all is required for theirs!).

Neglectful care in the NHS today is like racism in the police in the 1970s and 1980s: a major problem, blighting thousands of lives, but if you dare try to publicise it you are shot down: then, because it was unpatriotic to criticise our brave boys in blue; now, because if you dare criticise the beloved NHS you must be an evil Tory intent on breaking it up. The one glimmer of hope came from the recent admission by the president of the Royal College of Nursing, Andrea Spyropoulos, that some in the profession are just plain bad.

The planned Government reforms for GP commissioning are odd; but they are mistaken for a very different reason than that given by their critics: they are irrelevant to the most serious problem, which is declining standards of cleanliness and nursing care. Of course, one can just imagine the hysterical headlines if David Cameron and Nick Clegg dared confront this real, underlying problem! ‘Evil ConDems denounce our heroic nurses’ etc, etc. So we have a chronic, unreformed problem that our media and politicians dare not even acknowledge.

The smugness of the defenders of the NHS is actually the service’s worst enemy. I criticise the service, as thousands of other (often ignored) campaigners do, because we want to see its improvement, not its demise.



  1. Regrettably this story is a reflection on the way in which many individuals today regard their responsibilities. There was never a time when everything was wonderful and mistakes were never made, but there was a time when the majority of people subscribed to the notion that each and everyone had a duty, yes a terrible word, to do their very best at whatever task they were set.
    The idea that anyone who challenges those individuals or groups who do not appear to subscribe to “doing one’s best” can similarly be found at shop tills, talking to their colleague while the Customer patiently waits to pay for their purchases. This phenomenon has also surfaced in other very large organisations, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. A recent debate in Parliament noted that the service from this organisation had declined, almost in direct proportion to HMRC’s use of the word “Customer”.
    Does identifying these issues automatically mean that one is An Angry Old Man – or Woman?

    Comment by Matt Boyle — May 11, 2011 @ 3:42 pm | Reply

  2. Totally agree, Matt. It’s an interesting point where you say there ‘never was a time when everything was wonderful’. I’m sometimes accused of romanticising the past. I accept that the NHS was not ‘wonderful’ 30-40 years ago, but the hospitals were uniformly clean and an uncaring nurse was almost unheard of. Standards have slipped. That’s all I’m saying.

    Comment by felipewh — May 12, 2011 @ 8:53 am | Reply

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