Talking point: Falling out

Written by on 20 August 2014

When I took on the health portfolio in September, I was surprised by how much cross-party agreement there was in health beyond the shouting of the debating chamber. As the Health and Sport Committee took evidence from what seemed like every professional and third sector body in the land, it felt very much as if our politicians, when it came to the parliament’s biggest budget, shared the same priorities.

In the face of an ageing population putting unprecedented pressures on emergency services and social care, they agreed, services should be integrated, patients should be empowered and treated at home or in a home setting, and centres of excellence should be balanced by good community facilities. Eyes cast south of the border as England’s NHS continued to be reformed beyond recognition into a market-based model, saw even the Scottish Conservatives rule out similar reforms in Scotland. 

Inevitably, however, the bitterness and  mudslinging characterised by the independence referendum debate disrupted the consensus. The No campaigners began to talk up the ‘British NHS’, despite the systems having always been separate and cross-border care already ever more complicated, while the Yes campaigners started to warn of a threat to Scotland’s public health service after a No vote, despite the current consensus backing it. Both of these tactics can be described as 'scaremongering'.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution to the debate was made by the hugely respected Sir Harry Burns, who left his role as Chief Medical Officer this year. In July he told BBC Radio: “Would people in an independent country feel more in control of their lives? If they did, then that would be very positive for their health. If people felt they were able to engage more with local government, with central government and make choices more easily for themselves then that would improve their health.” His position should be no surprise. Giving evidence to the Health and Sport Committee in May, Sir Harry said: “The more time I spend in the Nordic countries, the more I think that we have much more in common with them. Their attitudes to children and each other are where I want to be.”

But whatever happens, there will need to be a rediscovery of a consensus post-September. Sir Harry would advocate hugs “because it is our natural instinct to nurture people who are in difficulty and people who are weaker than us. All of us in society benefit from demonstrating that.”

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