Tom Richmond: NHS deserves better than the hypocrisy of Andy Burnham

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THE relentless attempts by Labour’s Andy Burnham to turn the National Health Service into an even bigger political football ahead of the general election are symptomatic of the “broken politics” that sees health policy lurch from crisis to crisis.

You cannot have failed to have seen, or heard, the shadow health secretary given the voluminous number of interviews that he has conducted after Ed Miliband signalled his intention to “weaponise” the NHS.

A&E waiting time targets missed? Blame the Tories, he says. A failure to provide humane and dignified care to the frail and elderly? Blame the Tories. Privatisation of the NHS? Blame the Tories. So it goes on.

What do you expect after a wobbly Miliband refused seven times at the weekend – yes seven times – to deny that he had actually used the word “weaponise” in a briefing with the BBC?

The only time Mr Burnham appears lost for words is when an inquisitor reminds him about the last Labour government’s record and, specifically, his undistinguished record as Health Secretary in the final year of Gordon Brown’s administration.

After all, it was Labour who re-negotiated the contracts of family doctors so they could opt out of out-of-hours cover. It was Labour who presided over the Mid Staffs scandal when dehydrated patients had to sip stale water from flower vases to quench their thirst. And it was Labour, during Mr Burnham’s tenureship of the Department of Health, who paved the way for a private contractor to take over the troubled Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Huntingdon where Circle Holdings has now signalled its intention to relinquish control. Most peritently of all, Mr Burnham was Health Secretary in February 2010 when the Department of Health paved the way for private providers to run health services.

Contrast this with Mr Burnham’s buck-passing of late last week. “It was the decision of the coalition in November 2011 to appoint Circle and they must take responsibility for this mess,” he maintained.

This is what the Tories, and Liberal Democrats, are up against – a serial hypocrite because of Mr Burnham’s arrogant and mistaken belief that the country should take him at his word prior to polling day, and whose smears invariably go unchallenged.

For the record, I do think that Labour’s health spokesman does have some policies which merit further consideration, not least his call for closer correlation between health and social care budgets in order to lessen the instances where elderly patients cannot be discharged from hospital because of shortages in community care provision.

But I am afraid Mr Burnham will be doing the country a huge disservice if he spends the next five years as Health Secretary blaming the Tories for every failing between 2010 and 2015.

The NHS is too important for this. The current difficulties stem from the failure of recent governments – both Tory and Labour – to take account of the additional pressures created by an ageing society.

Labour’s remedy is the recruitment of 36,000 more doctors, nurses and midwives funded by a “mansion tax”, a crackdown on tax avoidance and a levy on tobacco firms’ market share.

Yet, while more frontline staff will be welcome, it will take years to recruit sufficient staff and the NHS itself needs to change if it is in a position to treat more patients in the future. Mr Burnham does not tell you this, unless he intends to perform a swift U-turn and back the recruitment of more staff from overseas.

Perhaps it is significant that the two most telling contributions in recent weeks have come from widely-respected individuals on the periphery of politics.

The first was the appeal by Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, for politics to be taken out of the NHS, and for leaders to forge a consensus.

The second came from rugby union’s World Cup-winning warrior Lawrence Dallaglio who has been campaigning for better cancer care following the death of his indefatigable mother Eileen in December 2008. He says it is morally and economically wrong that patients are denied cutting-edge radiotherapy, and that too much cancer care is focused on London. Cancer, he says, is no respecter of geographical boundaries.

Both are profound points which will help change the NHS for the better. But it will not happen while there are point-scoring politicians, like Mr Burnham, whose scaremongering contrasts with the sincerity of Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary.

After all, what is Burnham’s qualification to run the NHS? A Cambridge University graduate, he became a researcher to the then shadow minister Tessa Jowell before becoming an administrator at the Football Task Force for a year.

The National Health Service does not need career politicians. It needs visionary leaders who can use their experience to implement effective management changes. Andy Burnham is not that person – blaming others on a daily basis, and refusing to accept responsibility, are tactical own goals which should have no place in the NHS of today and tomorrow.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk