Watching Andrew Lansley performing these days sometimes reminds me of Casabianca, Felicia Dorothea Hemans’ famous poem of 1826, the one about the young French sailor (was he 10, 12 or 13?) who stayed at his post on the doomed warship, L’Orient, during Nelson’s 1798 victory at the Battle of the Nile.
“The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled…”
Etc etc. It’s pretty safe to assume that David Cameron has had little time to spare for his health secretary’s problems during the raging conflagration of the phone hacking affair which has engulfed Number 10 and the Metropolitan Police as well as the USS Murdoch. But there Mr Lansley is, still on the burning deck while the cannonballs whistle round him. By the time this reaches you the eurozone may – may – be in crisis too.
There is, of course, nothing like someone else’s crisis to take the heat off your own problems. If ministers are wise they will use the respite provided by the Murdoch empire’s problems to get some sustainable coherence into the Health Bill before it heads for the bloody-minded Lords in September. Old gentlemen have always been susceptible to Baroness Shirley Williams’ charms, even when she’s wrong.
Imagine the media furore about the hospital poisoning drama at Stockport Foundation Trust if the newspapers and TV had not been busy picking fluff out of their own navel? My impression is that the trust acted with commendable speed and openness when it called in Greater Manchester Police after a senior nurse noticed too many patients with unexplained low blood sugar levels.
The Stockport saga broke on the day of the last session of Commons health questions before the summer break. It was not mentioned, although Opposition MPs sniped at Paul Burstow, Mr Lansley’s Lib Dem deputy, for not keeping them sufficiently informed on the collapse of Southern Cross care homes. He did so in answer to an urgent question that afternoon, confirming Southern Cross would be wound up and insisting “no one will find themselves homeless or without care”.
That’s what the state is for, to act as the ultimate safety net, although his promise could be tricky to fulfil – and expensive.
That’s what makes the sniping over “real terms increases” in the NHS budget a bit, well, unreal. Labour MPs protest that this year’s 3.9 per cent increase over 2010-11 is calculated on the lower 2.9 per cent inflation measure whereas the old retail price index (ditched by Gordon Brown actually) records inflation now running at 5 per cent. The boy on the burning desk airily replies that the so-called GDP deflator is a better measure. So that’s OK then.
But it is not all gloom and we should bear that in mind. Labour MPs mock Lansley’s plans to cut bureaucracy by 45 per cent and save £5bn when he is also setting up the NHS Commissioning Board (possibly the “greatest quango in the sky” – Sir David Nicholson) with 3,500 staff. Ed Miliband scored a hit at PMQs the other week on this jibe, proving that Mr Cameron’s weakness is detail – as if we hadn’t got that.
But “details”: Lansley rattles off counter-statistics which show a net reduction in NHS managers (HSJ ticked him off last week for lax language) of 4,000, alongside 2,000 more doctors. He even claims there is better NHS dentistry, always a sign of giddy optimism – as is the official claim that MRSA is 22 per cent down and average hospital waiting times steady, not rising.
When Labour’s John Spellar protested that NHS West Midlands is cutting nurse training Lansley calmly assured him the region’s needs are less than elsewhere. The Burning Boy rarely misses a detail, but does he miss the wood for the trees?