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11 September 2014
Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Accusations of the former and a choice selection of the latter have been slung by both sides this week in relation to the future of the NHS.

While much of referendum campaign has centred on issues such as the economy, currency and Europe, in the final month the SNP has sought to shift the focus to the future of Scotland’s health service.

It is an issue close to people’s hearts so it didn’t take long for tempers to flare.

During a statement to parliament earlier this week, Health Secretary Alex Neil described how a ‘no’ vote in the September referendum would present a “disturbing” prospect and put our health service at “serious risk.”

“The consequences of a no vote would be reduced budgets as a result of privatisation, patient charges, fragmented pay arrangements for health staff, with further pay restrictions, and austerity as a matter of ideology south of the border.

“That is why we on this side of the chamber choose the path where the power and wealth of Scotland are put in the hands of the people of Scotland. We choose a future where Nye Bevan’s founding principles for the health service are not simple articles of aspiration but part of our constitution. We choose to ensure that those who come after us can have the guarantee of a health service that is free at the point of need, just as we and our families have benefited from that throughout our lives,” he said, as he repeated the First Minister’s commitment to enshrine the national health service as an institution in the constitution of an independent Scotland.

However, Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson, Neil Findlay lashed out at the claims, accusing the SNP of “lying” about the NHS to “scare the sick and the vulnerable to try and revive their faltering campaign,” calling it “the most disgusting thing I have seen in politics.”

Similarly, former Labour health minister, Malcolm Chisholm, who has previously maintained a more constructive and amicable relationship with the government than some of his colleagues, nevertheless felt obliged to speak out earlier this week against claims that the Scottish NHS could face privatisation after a ‘no’ vote, calling it “the biggest lie of the referendum campaign.”

Labour’s shadow secretary for health, Andy Burnham MP also interjected to clarify remarks he had made about the health service south of the border, and shared his colleagues’ contempt for the claims.

“I have to say I have seen some desperate tactics in my time in politics. But I think Alex Salmond’s attempts to play on the fears of the old, the sick and the vulnerable is beneath contempt,” said Burnham.

“He is not trying to lead Scotland to independence – he is trying to mislead Scotland.”

The truth, as Burnham sees it, is that the “greatest threat” to Scotland’s health service actually comes from First Minister, Alex Salmond’s independence plans.

“He has a black hole of more than £6 billion. That will mean cuts to public services and tax rises. And it will disrupt long-standing arrangements where Scotland is part of the system of finding donor organs throughout the UK, of access to specialist treatment in the rest of the country and getting millions of pounds worth of funding for medical research,” he argued, adding:

“If you really want to keep the NHS in public hands, free at the point of need, then you need to vote no.”

Both sides paint a bleak picture. But whose version of events will the public believe?

As with the debate around the economy and currency, clarity has been sought from independent experts in the field. But here too divisions emerge.

Leading cancer clinician, Dr Anna Gregor is one of the latest to speak out, telling the Herald yesterday that the claim Scotland must become independent to protect the Scottish NHS is a “total and utter lie”, and expressing her concern about the “unreasonable distress and panic” that was being spread among patients. She joins respected figures such as former oncologist, Professor Alan Rodger, and Professor Mike Dixon, a Professor of Surgery and consultant surgeon, in rubbishing claims that the NHS will suffer in the event of a ‘no’ vote.

But the Yes campaign has its own selection of health experts, and the campaign group NHS for Yes can boast a growing list of members, including Professor Mike Lean from Glasgow University and consultant surgeon Phillipa Whitford, who support their belief that the best way to protect the NHS in Scotland is through independence. While Scotland’s esteemed former chief medical officer, Sir Harry Burns, has also argued that Scottish independence could be “very positive” for the country’s health, if people felt they had more control over their lives.

It is clear that by attempting to shift the focus to the health service the SNP has managed to strike a nerve amongst their opponents, but whether it strikes a chord with the public remains to be seen. However, Health Secretary Alex Neil certainly seems to believe his is a winning argument.

“In short, the people of Scotland have a choice between two futures: one in which this nation’s vast wealth can be marshalled to help to create a fairer society; and one in which the budgets that are available for Scotland’s public services are consigned to the whim of Westminster,” he told the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday.

“Nye Bevan’s founding principles for the national health service were that the institution should be owned by the people and should give access to the highest attainable standard of health services, which would be free at the point of delivery and based on clinical need and not ability to pay.

“Those principles must be protected, and a yes vote gives this nation a chance to do just that by framing a constitution that reflects the values and aspirations of our nation.”

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