The danger for ministers over the festive break is to be drawn into the news vacuum that develops when the world goes on holiday. How well did Andrew Lansley survive his first Yuletide vacuum in the health hot seat?
“It could have been worse”, is my verdict.
The health secretary was lucky - or crafty - to unveil his next steps statement on primary care reform just as MPs and the media were gearing up for their festive high cholesterol injection, although he did attract some sharp comment. I’ll come back to that.
In my teens I used to worry that dreadful natural disasters invariably seemed to occur somewhere - an earthquake in Mexico, a Pacific volcano - at Christmas. Or a nasty murder. Only later did I realise they happen all the time, but get more attention in the Christmas vacuum.
This year we had both, Ulster’s water crisis (plus those Australian floods) and the cruel killing of Jo Yeates in Bristol to help fill empty pages.
It sounds cynical, but it’s true and certainly not as cynical as the “killer bug” stories which surface as regularly as Silent Night.
We had two rival bugs to deal with in 2010-11.
The dear old Daily Mail ran a “How £300m was squandered on swine flu jabs that we didn’t need” last spring.
That did not stop it coupling a fresh swine flu scare (“More than 200 victims were fighting for their lives last night”) with a panic (“Now GPs run out of vaccine”) about flu jabs in general.
This column’s policy is not to hyperventilate over flu - swine, avian or boring variety - and to encourage ministers likewise. But there’s a risk here for the Lansley team.
To save money ministers canned the “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” advertising campaign - so good that even I noticed - but have now been forced to revive it.
Labour’s assiduous John Healey welcomed what he naughtily dubbed a U-turn.
Coalition ministers are not to blame for the problems facing midwifery and maternity units, also highlighted in the festive vacuum (Labour’s generous immigration policies fuelled the baby boom) but they can make them worse.
That’s the real danger across government: false economies which boomerang. We are already seeing unemployment costs rising thanks to the squeeze.
Myself, I would be more alarmed this New Year by expert commentary, most conspicuously the online Guardian article by Sarah Wollaston, the Tory GP who won an open primary (ie anyone could vote) to be the party’s candidate - now the MP - in Totnes. Choice is dictated by geography in rural areas, which simply can’t afford to lose hospital services, she wrote. Hear, hear, says this Cornishman.
More deadly still, the MP, who sits on the Commons health committee, highlighted the risk which this column has skirted around but Polly Toynbee grabbed with both hands this week. Namely, that PCT reform will expose the NHS for the first time to EU competition law and may thereby let the private sector - US as well as local - force its way into a dominant position in the sector. It’s happening in some places.
That is basically a leftist critique. Odd to say, but the free market faction is also jumpy. Imperial College London’s Professor Nick Bosanquet predicts (with too much relish for my taste) a “Hallowe’en health shock” next autumn, the fifth great funding crisis since 1948, made worse by the NHS’s pensions debt and much else. It must copy the private sector and slash costs (medical consultants could use email, not quill pens, for a start), says Old Nick.
But even he warns against abolishing PCTs.