'Judicial review looms on the consultation process and voters don't need media spin to feel cheated'
'Don't do that, you'll be in government soon and they'll do it back to you,' I used to warn Labour spin paramedics when they did nasty things to John Major's Tory government in the mid-90s. But, of course, they ignored me and now the Tories are doing it back.
I'm sure I've made this point before. But it came to mind again mid-week when The Times shrieked: 'Waiting list crisis as NHS cuts costs.' An enterprising reporter had stitched together the budget story and the Department of Health's imminent release on waiting times. It turned what should have been a good news story into a crisis.
There's not much point in complaining about the trust-busting negativity of much media. There is no spin like media self-spin.
What had happened in this case was that NHS South Central had sent out a package of departmental guidance to constituent trusts. It advised them how to handle their local media when the 18-week data was announced two days later.
'There is a risk that the media's attention will focus around long waits and make claims that these new, more transparent measures of waiting times undermine the effort to date to tackle waiting in the NHS,' the memo said, with memorable prescience.
Which is exactly what The Times had done. The leaked e-mail revealed that 52 per cent of hospital inpatients are still waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment, which means that 48 per cent are not - a development which ministers and officials in Whitehall thought a pretty encouraging sign that, perhaps, the 18-week target by December 2008 is reachable.
But it is also a perfect case of 'is the glass 48 per cent full or 52 per cent empty?'
Someone at NHS South Central had pressed the wrong button so the e-mail also went to all MPs in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, including Cameron, Dave; Johnson, Boris; and Redwood, John. When the strategic health authority hastily sent a cancellation, saying 'don't use this information' Mr Redwood apparently replied: 'I already have.'
Never mind. Health minister Handy Andy Burnham could still proclaim the service 'firmly on course' to meet the 18-week target, though 'challenges' remain in trusts which did badly. Transparency is about raising performance.
In fact, few seem to have noticed that the published data covered only the six out of 10 patient journeys so far collated. So things could actually be worse, a thought which takes me to an exchange I witnessed across the Commons next day.
Mike Penning, Tory MP for Hemel Hempstead, complained that campaigners to save the Hertfordshire commuter town's hospital had repeatedly been told there were 'no plans to close it'. Suddenly a plan had surfaced to close, to lose 750 jobs and sell parts of the large site for redevelopment, he said.
Wily Jack Straw, leader of the Commons, well knows Mr Penning's local zeal. He quoted West Herts Hospitals trust medical director Professor Graham Ramsay saying consolidation of key services and specialists would be 'better for patients'. A Tory government would also face hard choices in the county, he suggested.
Reconfiguration anguish is acute in Herts and when I caught up with Mr Penning he was still smarting. Strictly, it won't be a closure as one wing of the hospital at Hemel might stay open for outpatients and diagnostics, he explained.
But accident and emergency would go 12 miles south to Watford. Hemel would lose most key services. Talk of a private finance hospital at Welwyn Hatfield has faded as the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital there is reconfigured downwards, so its Tory MP, Grant Shapps, told me.
The county's 1 million-plus residents would have no acute hospital in mid-Herts. Cynics say they would either go to Labour-held Watford or north to Labour Stevenage on crowded roads, as angry correspondents point out on local websites.
Judicial review looms on alleged defects in the consultation process, and voters don't need media spin to feel cheated. On Sunday Mr Shapps e-mailed me an aerial photograph showing protesters forming a huge 'HOSPITAL SOS'. More bad e-mail news for ministers.