The spat over the Welsh NHS gets ugly

Jeremy Hunt has been accused of telling a 'tissue of lies' over the health service in Wales.

Jeremy Hunt has been accused of telling a ’tissue of lies’ over the health service in Wales

The virtual war now waging between the UK and Welsh governments over the NHS has intensified following the release of a letter sent from Welsh health minister Mark Drakeford to Jeremy Hunt, accusing the Conservatives of telling a “tissue of lies” over the health service in Wales.

With the Daily Mail continuing its dirty tricks campaign designed to undermine Labour ahead of next year’s General Election, the latest spat focusses on whether or not the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development should be allowed to undertake a study to compare the performance of health services across the four nations of the UK.

However the Welsh government has objected to the proposed timeline because, under such an arrangement, the Department of Health (DH) would have sight of a draft of the report before ministers in Cardiff. Crucially this would enable Conservative ministers to use the report as part of its General Election campaign.

Speaking to the Western Mail recently, Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones explained:

“Scotland and Northern Ireland are as annoyed as we are. There was an agreement that this would be a four-nation assessment. The Department of Health refused to give an assurance that they wouldn’t use unverified figures in the general election.

“So ourselves, Scotland and Northern Ireland said ‘let’s follow the usual process here and embargo the figures until after the general election’. They wouldn’t do it – that’s how politicised the Department of Health has become.

“We’ve said that if they don’t sort this out, we’ll go ahead ourselves and have an OECD assessment [commissioned by us] rather than wait for them and the political games they’re playing. Hey presto – the story was fed to a Conservative MP.

“The Department of Health, I’m afraid, we do not trust at all. It’s the most politicised department of any department of Whitehall. They have form on this – they did it on veterans’ health. We can’t work with them, frankly. We could not share anything confidential with them. They would leak it.”

Following Jeremy Hunt’s announcement during Health Questions yesterday that he had written to the Welsh health minister to once again attack Welsh Labour’s handling of the health service, Mark Drakeford’s latest salvo in the ongoing war of words has raised tensions still further.

Mr Drakeford’s letter attacks Hunt for the claims about the Welsh government seeking to oppose the OECD study, arguing that the DH’s desire to use the report in the General Election campaign is “an overt politicisation of the process” and “truly shocking”. “It flies in the face of every principle of the proper conduct of public life,” he writes.

Drakeford goes on to insist that he will not allow the Welsh NHS to be dragged “through the mud for entirely partisan political purposes”.

He also claims that “at a time when the four home nations of the UK need to be working closely together to address the threat of Ebola, your willingness to put the interests of your party above those of the public is especially reprehensible”.

He also accused Hunt of leaking a letter that the Conservative had sent to him – before it had even arrived in Wales. “That was” he wrote “grossly discourteous and demeaning of the office you are privileged to hold.”

“As it had already been used to augment the tissue of lies which are told on behalf of your party, you will not be surprised that I have decided this letter will be available for publication” Drakeford said.

The latest spat has sparked calls for all sides to calm down, end the rhetoric and begin talking in a constructive and civilised manner.

Accusing all sides in the politically charged debate of behaving in a way that is almost “immoral”, Tina Donnelly, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales, has expressed her deep disappointment at the behaviour of ministers at both ends of the M4. She said:

“It’s extremely disappointing – most of the NHS staff in Wales will put patients at the centre of their delivery, and to have politicians scaremonger about the standard of service within the NHS in Wales is from our point of view not wanted.

“Every day we are faced with pressures in the media – whether it’s through poor nursing or challenges in the NHS – and that really does put both patients at risk and staff at risk.

“If you think of a vulnerable, elderly lady or gentleman sitting in the community waiting to come into hospital thinking that the standard of care that they’re going to have is second class, and it’s not going to deliver to them then that is immoral.”

Her views have been echoed by the Western Daily Mail, whose political editor has argued that “a screaming match will poison politics and scare patients”. Noting that the Welsh NHS is not in the kind of state that some in the Conservative Party seek to portray, David Williamson today writes:

“Attempts to frighten the voters of Middle England with scare stories about Wales will (a) cause many of this nation’s elderly, ill and infirm needless worry (b) damage vital efforts to attract inward investment and (c) corrode NHS morale.

“Yes, NHS Wales has problems that must be addressed but independent and authoritative recent research by Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation shows that it is not in a state of crisis. England is not a health utopia; in fact, there is ‘little sign that one country is moving ahead of the others consistently’.

“There is a strong case for better health statistics across the UK so the performance of the different branches of the NHS can be studied in greater clarity. A rational debate is needed as to how we can fund the service in the decades ahead but a screaming match will poison politics and scare patients.”

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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