Tom Richmond: Act now to treat growing symptoms of NHS unease

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DAVID Cameron is proud of his commitment to the National Health Service. As the Tory leader likes to remind voters: “Tony Blair explained his priorities in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters: NHS.”

Despite Labour scare-mongering to the contrary, this coalition did protect the health budget in 2010 in spite the financial surgery that had to be carried out on the public sector. I’m not sure the government of Margaret Thatcher, for example, would have been so benevolent.

Yet, as Labour’s health spokesman Andy Burnham accuses the Prime Minister of presiding over a forced privatisation of the NHS, rather than offering an apology for the past government’s shameful failure to intervene in Mid Staffordshire, it is time for Cameron to respond to the growing unease about the availability of GP appointments.

Rightly or wrongly, a growing number of patients have gone on the record to say that it is increasingly difficult to see their family doctor – and this is backed up by the Royal College of General Practitioners which claimed earlier this week that there will be 50 million occasions next year when surgeries will have to turn patients away because of a shortage of staff.

“The profession has been brought to its knees both by a chronic slump in investment and the fact that there are now simply not enough family doctors to go around,” said the Royal College’s honorary treasurer Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard.

“Whilst some of these patients will try calling the practice another time to get an appointment, this isn’t good enough – many will either end up in hospital or, worse still, will not seek any medical treatment at all.”

The organisation’s is not a lone voice – experts from several universities say people who enjoy continuity of care and see the same family doctor on every visit to their GP surgery are less likely to seek help in an A&E department.

And the British Medical Association has highlighted the fact that the training of new doctors is not keeping pace with the retirement of existing GPs, people with vast experience.

These are health warnings that the PM can’t afford to ignore. GP care is an issue which always elicits strong views from voters – either they respect their doctor or they complain that they never see the same person twice, or are denied an appointment slot by an unsympathetic receptionist.

It does not end here. Waiting times for cancer treatment are on the up, according to NHS England’s annual report, while Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is accused of being economical with the truth over A&E waiting times.

It’s why David Cameron needs to find some urgent remedies before his NHS commitment backfires. His rhetoric – and use of unconvincing statistics at PMQs – appears increasingly at odds with the patient experience on the front line. He has been warned.

TALKING of Ed Miliband, the Labour leader’s double standards are simply breathtaking. He says politics should be about policies rather than photo opportunities, but this is the Labour leader who literally begged to have his picture taken with Barack Obama, delivered a speech about his image – and then went on the Andrew Marr Show to call for Prime Minister’s Questions to be reformed.

I’m afraid Miliband’s call for greater public involvement in PMQs does not add up.

If this did happen, the main parties would arrange for their activists to apply for accreditation in order to ask “planted” questions. There would be even less spontaneity than now. And it would also undermine the work of elected MPs who are paid – let it be remembered – to represent their constituents without fear or favour.

The challenge, as I see it, is attracting a generation of politicians with minds of their own – in other words people who are prepared to ask awkward questions and not take “no” for an answer.

DEWSBURY-born Betty Boothroyd was at her most forthright when she tore into David Cameron for downgrading the status of the newly-appointed Leader of the Lords in the Cabinet reshuffle.

In summary, Baroness Stowell will be paid less than her male predecessor Lord Hill, who is to become an EU commissioner.

Yet I’d have a bit more sympathy for the former Speaker of the House of Commons if the Lords was not packed with political cronies and non-entities who have, invariably, been given a peerage by their main parties so they do not rock the boat.

My understanding is that the House of Lords will be Anne McIntosh’s next port of call after the Thirsk and Malton MP was de-selected by her local party – provided that Yorkshire’s only female MP goes quietly and agrees not stand against Kevin Hollinrake, her probable successor in the Ryedale seat, as a trouble-making independent with the potential to split the Conservative vote.

AS an advertisement for squash and its sporting attributes, the Commonwealth final between Yorkshire players Nick Matthew and James Willstrop could not have been more entertaining – and dramatic. Yet why was the BBC presenter Gary Lineker so surprised? I’ll tell him why. This is one of the minority sports that the Corporation – his sole employer – only features on prime-time television every four years (squash, shamefully is not an Olympic sport). Perhaps Lineker would like to raise this issue with his employers?

WHEN Attivo won the 1974 Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, there was no hint of emotion – or bias – from BBC commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan as his colours were carried to victory. Imnpartial throughout, he was the ultimate broadcasting professional.Contrast this with Steve Cram, the BBC’s voice of athletics, being unable to contain himself, when one of his runners came second at the Commonwealth Games.

It was, frankly, nauseating, and shows the extent to which standards have slipped in the Corporation’s sports department – and made worse by Cram’s self-promotion during the medal ceremony.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk