Published: 18/08/2005, Volume II5, No. 5969 Page 10
Switching on Radio 4's Today programme, I found Labour's Frank Dobson slugging it out with Nick Herbert, a new Conservative MP keen to put NHS funding on an insurance basis.
'Check your figures, sunshine' the former health secretary told him in his cheerful, bruiser's way. Mr Herbert, 42, had been making good points about private provision, but Dobbo, 65, kept him on the ropes. It made me proud to be an oldie.
Back to real life. Was there a coverup last week when the Department of Health quietly slipped out the latest report from its scientific reference group of health inequalities, chaired by Professor Sir Michael Marmot?
Some certainly think so. The Politics of Health Group co-chair Dr Alex Scott-Samuel e-mailed me immediately: 'How ironic that, 25 years after the Black report slipped reluctantly into the public domain during the August parliamentary recess, after three months in the grasp of the Thatcher government, similar treatment has been accorded to a report documenting the failure of the most neo-liberal government since Thatcher.' He was referring to two things.
One was the famous Black report on class and health inequality. A big issue for Dobbo, whose father died young, the report was commissioned by a Labour government, then buried by Tory health secretary Patrick Jenkin, who published a paltry 260 copies over the August bank holiday of 1980.
The other is that the Marmot report (Dr Scott-Samuel tells us It is available at www. dh. gov. uk/asset Root/04/11/76/98/04117698. pdf) says the differences between the infant mortality and adult life spans of the richest and poorest families has widened under Labour.
For example, infant death rates for the lowest socio-economic groups were 19 per cent higher in 2001-03 than for the total population, compared with only 13 per cent in 1997-99. In 2001-03 there were six infant deaths per 1,000 live births at the bottom of the scale, and only 3.5 at the top. The top-to-bottom life expectancy gap has also widened by 2 per cent for men and 5 per cent for women.
As public health minister Caroline Flint was quick to point out, there were 'encouraging signs' of improvement in some respects: a fall in child poverty a better record on heart attacks and strokes.
'This report gives no grounds for complacency that enough has been done' to meet Whitehall's 2010 targets, said Sir Michael, who placed it in the context of a century of 'dramatic improvements' for all social classes, though not enough among the poor. Masterful tact;
That is how they get knighthoods.
What offended some observers, including Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley, was that ministers simultaneously announced plans to send 12 'health trainers' into deprived areas; a pledge from the public health white paper.
A typically 'token and trivial scheme' to deflect attention, said Mr Lansley. Poverty and diet must be tackled too, said the Lib Dem spokesman, Steve Webb.
But they didn't say it very loudly.
The issue was aired on Today, and I spotted it in the Mail ('Labour breaks health vow') and The Daily Telegraph - nowhere else.
Even the broadsheets were still too preoccupied with the arrest of Islamic militants and threats of an NHS heart op for Omar Bakri Mohammed. 'I'll do it, ' volunteered a Telegraph reader before home secretary Charles Clarke blocked the cleric's return from Lebanon, saving both the NHS and the Benefits Agency time and money.
When I rang my friends at the DoH, they were rather hurt at charges of villainy. An embargoed press release had been issued on Wednesday for use on Thursday. 'We didn't slip it out, we tried to get the newspapers interested, ' protested one.
The Marmot figures only got to 2003, so are out-of-date, and the health trainers plan was an attempt to throw the issues forward, I was told. Yes, but Ms Flint's press release ('Health trainers for disadvantaged areas') stressed progress, not disappointment, in its first sentence.
You decide. In Whitehall's defence I would only say that Number 10 is always badgering ministries for good news announcements in the dog days of August and complains if they do not get much coverage. It is a dog's life. And trainers are surely a good idea. .
Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.