John Prescott phoned up for a chat yesterday, and amid all the this, that and the other we talked about, the subject of NHS Direct came up.
I made mention of the online petition that had been launched to save the service following the announcement (if you can label as an announcement something burbled out by Andrew Lansley on the Bank Holiday) that the coalition planned to scrap it. I pointed out that despite a fairly muted mainstream media response to the story, the petition seeemed to be going well in its aim of getting the 100,000 signatures needed for David Cameron to be be hoist by his own petard of promising a Commons debate on any subject which generated that kind of response.
What I didn’t realise, until the call, was that it was JP and his son David who had launched the petition. You have to hand it to him. He may be an ex-deputy PM, and an ex-MP (Eric Heffer used to say there is nobody more ex than an ex-MP) but he remains indefatigable if there is a good campaign to get going, and has adapted to the new media world better than most politicians a half and even a third his age.
It is to be hoped that when Parliament returns there will be a proper debate on this with or without the petition. Because whilst the Tories may have a mandate to reduce the deficit, they do not have a mandate – on the contrary given how clear Cameron was about his promises on health – to eat into the frontline services the NHS provides.
So the debate becomes whether NHS Direct qualifies as frontline. Like all services, it has supporters and detractors and when I tweeted about it the other day, there were plenty of both to be found. But scrapping it as part of the deficit reduction plan – the unspoken but probably main reason – becomes less credible when you consider that last year it was reckoned to save the NHS substantially more than it cost, by alleviating pressure on other parts of the Service, notably A and E and GPs’ surgeries. And for many people, it IS the frontline, and a very effective first port of call.
The coalition, in so far as it has been forced to argue for this particular cut, hides behind the GPs, saying they want it cut. Well, some might, and they might include doctors’ leaders who see their role as trying to get power and resources to follow the branch of the service they represent. But the only question that matters is whether it is sensible for the NHS as a whole. That is far from proven. Indeed, this decision appears to have been announced with very little forethought at all, which is why it is right that JP and others keep this campaign going so that the arguments can be tested properly in public.
The media continues to give the coalition an easy ride, but there is going to come a point where people start to ask themselves, in pretty large numbers, why things are happening which nobody who voted Tory or Lib Dem wanted or supported at the election. This is one of them.
Both of us are somewhat belated converts to the whole new media scene, and perhaps not quite as technically savvy as appearances might suggest