Being done over by expensive parking charges is hardly the best way to get over an illness or injury, or feel valued at work. Public resentment is real, the more so because one in four English hospitals allow free parking.
What’s this? Cash strapped English hospitals “ordered” to cut extortionate parking charges to seriously ill patients and their families? Cue for rejoicing in Fleet Street? Not exactly.
Department of Health guidelines are not quite “orders” and have been ignored in the past, on this thorny topic as on many others.
But the small print did not prevent Fleet Street declaring victory on behalf of its readers.
‘Being stiffed by a hospital regime that inflicts unpredictable delays on its customers adds insult to what may be life threatening injury or illness’
“Victory over the parking cowboys: hospitals ordered to ban bullies” the Daily Mail declared on page one – not the only such August star treatment for Jeremy Hunt who might have been tempted to slip away on holiday while the coast looked clear.
And why not? Being stiffed by a hospital regime that inflicts unpredictable delays on its customers and their loved one adds insult to what may be life threatening injury or illness.
At least they have the consolation of hoping that the money extracted – £3 an hour, up to £72 a day at one London hospital, reports Tory MP Robert Halfon – helps the NHS budget.
Resentment is real
Did I hear £200m, anyone? Leicester’s trust alone made £3.6m last year.
Private NHS contractors (“cowboys” in tabloid speak) can be worse, certainly more dodgy. “Ticket the old, they always pay,” is their motto.
‘Public resentment is real, the more so because one English hospital in four allows free parking’
My family uses several big London hospitals and only one has a car park worthy of the name – a pretty ropey one too. The local council that runs it is famously rapacious: it might as well dress its wardens in a highwayman’s mask and hat.
For some, public transport saves the day, though I recently transported a 48 hour urine sample to the lab (too much information?) on my bike. Public resentment is real, the more so because one in four English hospitals allow free parking.
Fumbling the issue
So is Mr Hunt right to stroke voters? Or is he merely annoying them with ground rules about the “seriously ill” and those unavoidably detained beyond their ticket time that will be near impossible to enforce fairly, except at ill affordable expense?
Didn’t HSJ report last week that the acute sector is running a £750m budget? Is Mr Hunt ”doing an Eric Pickles”? The populist champion of town hall localism cuts council budgets, then interferes to prevent them raising funds elsewhere.
‘Politicians have been fumbling this issue for years’
The posh word for all this is “co-payments”, charging service users for some of the cost. For parking read “tuition fees”, a somewhat larger charge.
Politicians have been fumbling this issue for years. It’s almost a decade since the Commons health committee declared policy on parking, eyes tests and prescription charges - a battle as old as the NHS - a “mess”.
A flat charge? Means testing? Free to all? Sort it out, said MPs. Ministers never do.
Here we go again
The Labour government was running a parking consultation in 2009-10, after which the new coalition relaxed guidelines that had urged hospitals to raise prices and encourage public transport options – fashionable “nudge theory” in action. Guidelines have since been tweaked. Here we go again.
I don’t think it reflects well on the permanent negotiation that goes by the name of politics to legislate or issue guidance that we all know is merely going through the motions; it fuels cynicism, trendy and unhealthy.
‘It doesn’t reflect well on the permanent negotiation that goes by the name of politics to legislate’
Mansion taxes? Energy prices caps? Anti-social behaviour orders for teenage jihadis? They smack of headline chasing.
On the other hand, priority parking for the disabled, fair pricing, clearer signs, a decent appeal process against the rackets… they’re all small, worthy improvements.
I just wish they weren’t on page one, even in August.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian