In Depth

How did we fall out of love with NHS? Easy. It's election politics

Labour MPs see the hand of No 10 election strategist Lynton Crosby behind the current NHS horror-fest

ALMOST a year after the world was left dewy-eyed about our love for the NHS by Danny Boyle's spectacular opening ceremony for the London Olympics, reality bites.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is poised to send in hit squads to tackle Britain's "killer" hospitals, acting on the review by Sir Bruce Keogh which identified 14 NHS hospitals where the mortality rates were unusually high.

As John Humphrys, the Radio 4 Today presenter, said this morning, Keogh's discovery of thousands of apparently needless deaths reinforces the adage that hospitals make you ill. What has gone wrong?

In a nutshell, the NHS is being used as a political football for the coming general election.

Labour were in charge for most of the period – 2005 to 2012 – covered by the Keogh Report and so the Tories are seeking to pin the blame for the hospitals' shortcomings on Labour's handling of the NHS.

Labour MPs have told the Mole they see the hand of Lynton Crosby, the Tories' hard-hitting Aussie election campaign strategist, behind this.

"Lynton Crosby is very good. He's trying to neutralise the health service for the Tories as an issue before the 2015 general election," said one Labour former whip.

But a leading health expert - John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health - this morning accused both the Tories and Labour of using the NHS for "a massive political game".

The Tories' main target is Andy Burnham, the last Labour health secretary. Burnham went on the Today programme this morning to reject allegations that he covered up the scandal of high mortality rates. He also accused the Tories of pursuing a secret agenda to privatise or commercialise the NHS.

"What we have here is a political attempt to re-write the Francis report [into the Mid-Staffs hospital trust] and throw all of the blame at the last government and it simply isn't good enough. What we have seen is that [at] the 14 hospitals in the Keogh review, standards have fallen on this government's watch.

"I believe this government is portraying the NHS in as negative a light as it possibly can. It has an agenda around privatisation, more marketisation of the NHS."

Burnham claimed that NHS care had worsened markedly under the coalition government, noting that 1,000 nursing cuts had been made at the 14 hospitals under review.

He also accused his own senior civil servants at the Department of Health of seeking to cover up the evidence of high mortality rates at hospitals such as Mid-Staffs and Basildon. "I received official advice - from the full weight of the government - that no further inquiry [into Mid-Staffs] was needed."

However, Prof Sir Brian Jarman, a member of one of the NHS hospital inquiry teams and a specialist in hospital mortality rates, said regulators had all complained about pressure put on them by the Department of Health under Labour - though not individual ministers - to play down the importance of high mortality rates at some hospitals.

Jarman quoted a memorandum in the Keogh Report from civil servants to former Labour health minister Ben Bradshaw advising him on the "line to take" against a damning report first published in 2007. It said "if pushed on DH (Department of Health) role, say that the ... report was first published in 2001..." thus implying it was out of date.

Maybe Danny Boyle needs to revisit the NHS – and make a political horror movie this time.

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