Having been bed-ridden with some kind of stinking cold for the past few days, I thought it appropriate to do something on health tonight. That's not the only reason, of course, nor even the main one. The main one is Labour's latest attempt to steal Tory policy thunder with an announcement by their child of a health minister, Andy Burnham, that filled this morning's front pages, to rig NHS waiting list figures by making taxpayers pay for other people to go private.
Aside from the fact that this is an admission of abject failure, and that this sudden pledge, designed as it obviously and dishonestly is somehow to "Tory-proof the NHS" (as one Labour apologist put it) in an area where they are making significant headway with some excellent policy commitments of their own, some might be tempted to argue that making use of surplus capacity in the private sector in this way is a good idea. They would be entirely wrong.
Three of the central reasons why they would be wrong are that, first, private health care is preferable to NHS care, and many millions of people choose to pay the extra cost, because the spare capacity, deliberately made, creates a better service and zero waiting times. The spare capacity itself is made possible by high levels of properly managed investment and best management practice. The NHS - and government - has a lot to learn from private health care. The effect of the government intervening and paying private hospitals effectively to solve the problem of over-demand and inefficiency in the NHS will be to spread the disease: it will kill spare capacity in the private system leading, inevitably and quickly, to price hikes. In the end, private patients will actually be squeezed out of the market by government subcontracting. Perhaps this is the Labour party's real aim.
The second of the central reasons why this is such a bad idea is partly a moral one. It's not just private patients who will end up being clobbered by a government that once again seems willing to rig the market to mask its own total incompetence. It's the taxpayers as well. Who does this government think it is? It must think people are astonishingly stupid if it thinks they will not notice that they will be paying for the same health service (already the most expensive and inefficient in the world) twice if, God forbid, this government actually won the next election and brought these measures in. It is not only an insult to the electorate's intellegence, however, it is morally wrong for a government to use legislation to fleece the population for political and dishonest motives. Those motives? 1. To massage waiting list figures; 2. To further the notion that "entitlement", in the socialist sense, is some sort of moral absolute and is something that only the state, not the market, can fulfil; 3. To embarrass the Tories (though I'm not sure how they expect this policy announcement will achieve that); 4. Possibly to gain some control of the private healthcare system by, effectively, buying it off. Some might have their doubts about this last one, but people should never forget that it has always been a long term aim of the Left to kill off all competition to the state provision of services, particularly in the areas of education and health.
The third central reason why this is such a bad idea is, of course, the most simple to grasp and straightforward to explain - and it's the most powerful: it's Labour's idea and it would be a Labour ministry trying to enforce it. The past 12 years tell us very clearly, especially when it comes to PPP or PFI or subcontracting arrangements with and within the NHS (and everywhere else), that it would be a full-scale, monumentally costly catastrophe.
Health care is never free, but at least with the Tories there's a chance we might get a bit more value for money. If this Labour government is re-elected all we will have is less and less for more and more - and Burnham's blustering policy announcement proves that point perfectly.