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Matt Hancock should learn from the Covid crisis before dictating to the NHS

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The health service was founded in 1948, and at every election since Labour has hoped to harvest votes by accusing the Tories of plotting to abolish the NHS. Labour leaders as very different as Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn have sought to rouse people with the battlecries “NHS up for sale”, “not safe in Tory hands” and “24 hours to save the NHS”. The public usually tends to share the suspicion that the Conservatives are not to be trusted with the health service, and yet that hasn’t stopped Britain electing a lot more Tory prime ministers than it has Labour ones.

Voters perhaps intuit that no Tory government, however dastardly its soul or sinister its motives, would be so politically suicidal as to try to raze Britain’s best loved state organisation. Nigel Lawson, one of Margaret Thatcher’s chancellors, once expressed his frustration that the public would never accept an insurance-based alternative by sighing that “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have now to a religion”. It was with deep cynicism, great mendacity and also considerable impact that the Brexit campaign promised a stupendous cash windfall for the health service if Britons chose to quit the EU. We know that Boris Johnson understands how Britons feel about the NHS, because we have seen how he sought to exploit that national sentiment when the coronavirus put him in hospital. He emerged from his treatment to express his gratitude to the UK’s “greatest national asset” and “the beating heart of this country”, hoping by doing so to establish an enduring association in the public’s mind between himself and this most sacred national institution.

The real sin of Conservative governments has not been to conspire to demolish the health service. The acuter criticism, one made more piercing by the pandemic, is that the Tories are guilty of inconsistent and habitually inadequate funding combined with haphazard and often contradictory fiddling with the organisation of the NHS.

Restructurings of the health service come around about once a decade and are often driven by secretaries of state ambitious to make names for themselves as “Tory radicals”. The typical pattern is for the author to hail “a landmark reform” before it then turns into a millstone. No one now has a good word for the “Lansley reforms” launched 10 years ago. Truth........

© The Guardian

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