Distraction in healthcare can be a blessing in disguise. As a patient, I have appreciated a kind word, a hand held just as the needle goes in, the dressing is ripped off, the unavoidable pain caused. And as a doctor, how much do I strive to soothe and detract from the unpleasantness I must sometimes inflict on those in my care.
But in health politics, distraction is anything but benign. As the NHS quietly implodes around us, Downing Street’s media tactics exhibit a disturbing trend. Just like her special friend across the pond, Theresa May has fully embraced the power of migrant-bashing to divert attention away from inconvenient news. Those NHS disasters you’ve been hearing so much about – the patients dying in corridors or waiting years for surgeries – that’s right, it’s those filthy foreigners to blame. You know, the migrants clogging up the system, pinching all the GP slots and essentially stealing all of our precious NHS cash. Anyone would think it was time to seal ourselves within a great big British wall.
The Government has conveniently timed their latest volley against immigrants to cleanse the front pages of the devastating news that a staggering one in six A&E departments are set to be closed or downgraded in the next four years – a direct consequence of Downing Street’s decision to impose £22bn of cuts upon the NHS by 2020. Instead, today’s headlines are screaming about Jeremy Hunt’s new law to force hospitals to deny non-emergency treatment to any “foreign patient” who cannot produce identity documents proving their right to free care. NHS staff, we are told, will even be issued with credit card readers to take payments at hospital bedsides before any treatment can commence.
As an NHS doctor, I have news for Theresa May. At the bedside, I am my patient’s advocate, neither a tax collector nor a conscripted border guard. My first duty as a doctor is to my patients – not her Trumpist demagoguery – and I will continue to treat according to need and only need, as opposed to country of birth.
As Theresa May is, of course, fully aware, it is her Government’s cost-cutting agenda, not migrants, that imperils our NHS. To inject some facts into Downing Street’s grubby post-truth narrative, so-called health tourism is responsible for a mere 0.3 per cent of NHS spending. The NHS loses more money on missed GP appointments and spends more on stationery. Yet the political choice to impose £22bn of “efficiency savings” is decimating our ability to provide safe, reliable care to our patients. Whipping up anti-immigrant feeling to divert attention from the crisis state of our NHS is like accusing “bad hombres” and Muslims of ruining America – this is cynical, sinister stuff.
Doctors like me fear that this ill-conceived policy will deter some of the very patients who are most in need from seeking healthcare – poor, vulnerable, perhaps unable to speak English, and terrified that a trip to hospital may descend into an interrogation about entitlement to stay. To me, that is the antithesis of the values underpinning our NHS. I suppose the prospect of an NHS-wide network of bedside chip and pin machines may prove irresistibly seductive to those in government eager to steer NHS funding away from general taxation towards private revenue streams. But using migrant bashing to achieve this? Britain is better than this.