The Health Bill enters the crucial report stage in the House of Lords next week amid huge controversy. To mark this, the BMJ, HSJ and Nursing Times have, for the first time, cooperated to publish the same editorial.
As the editors of the BMJ, HSJ and Nursing Times, we have divergent views on the NHS reforms and its beleaguered Health and Social Care Bill. But on one thing we are agreed: the resulting upheaval has been unnecessary, poorly conceived, badly communicated and a dangerous distraction at a time when the NHS is required to make unprecedented savings. Worse, it has destabilised and damaged one of this country’s greatest achievements: a system that embodies social justice and has delivered widespread patient satisfaction, public support, and value for money. We must make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.
Health interest groups differ in their stance on whether to oppose the bill outright or to work with the government to try to improve it. But there can be no doubting the deep distress and lack of confidence in the plans among those who must deliver the service.
A chief executive of a primary care trust cluster admitted to one of us last week that the breakdown of the relationships between commissioners and trusts caused by the reforms’ structural mayhem had left him with no way of knowing for sure “if I’ve got another Mid Staffs on my doorstep”. He was only reassured by the fact that “nothing much happens up here, so the local paper does a lot on health”.
The reforms did not have to result in this unholy mess. The coalition agreement released in the honeymoon period immediately after the election focused on clinical leadership and patient and public empowerment. It was generally well received by those whose daggers are drawn against the reforms.
But through a combination of poor political judgement and reluctance to engage with criticism, a set of (mostly) reasonable objectives morphed into an old fashioned top-down reorganisation. This was the very thing the agreement had pledged to avoid. It also resulted in a bloated piece of legislation, whose goals could have largely been achieved by other, more effective, means.
Despite the campaign to “kill the bill”, the heavily amended legislation is likely to be passed in March. So what will we be left with once the bill hauls its battered hulk across the Royal Assent finishing line some weeks later? First, despite the costly debate and scrutiny, we will still be in the dark about how much of the new system will work. Guidance and secondary legislation affecting the function of key bodies – clinical commissioning groups, Monitor, and the NHS Commissioning Board – are not due for many months.
Second, thanks to health secretary Andrew Lansley’s initial tunnel vision followed by the government’s hasty compromises in the face of growing opposition, we will have an unstable system that is only partially fit for purpose. In order to work, the system will have to rely on a set of complex and sometimes conflicting relationships between the Department of Health, the commissioning board, CCGs, as yet undetermined clinical commissioning services, local authority health and wellbeing boards and a host of other national, regional and local actors. Care integration – now shoehorned into the legislation as a supposed antidote to the drive for increased competition between providers – is ill defined and lacks any meaningful incentives to encourage its adoption.
It is possible to feel sorry for Mr Lansley when, after years of being told that politicians should get out of the NHS, his proposals to loosen the health secretary’s grip on the service were thrown back in his face. But those proposals were poorly thought through, and the government amendment restoring his responsibility for the NHS has failed to reassure most critics.
Third, because the proposed new system will have little resilience or cohesion, the next government will find it necessary to overhaul the NHS again. This is not good for anyone, least of all frontline staff. But ironically this may be Mr Lansley’s one great achievement: reforms designed and implemented so badly that another major NHS reform programme is guaranteed within five years.
What lessons can we learn from this debacle? Sustainable reform requires politicians to be clear about the problem they are trying to solve. A recurrent and justified criticism of these changes has been their failure to express a clear rationale. There also needs to be clarity on the methods proposed to solve the problem.
There has been a broad consensus among policy makers from all major parties for over 30 years about what is required to deliver an effective and efficient health service. Cornerstones of this worldview include a division between commissioners and health providers and the use of choice and competition to drive improvement. Yet relatively few healthcare staff share these views, while most of the public remain ignorant of the approach that is being taken and why. Both New Labour and the coalition failed to illuminate this debate – the Blairites because they were scared of frightening the party horses, the coalition through a failure to properly explain its proposals.
The NHS is far too important to be left at the mercy of ideological and incompetent intervention. Health policy has to respond rapidly to demographic and technological changes. But rather than relying on policy makers to build brave new worlds in back rooms, we need a broad public debate on, for example, the principles that should underpin the NHS, how decisions on priorities should be made in a cash-limited system, and what role clinicians and private sector organisations could and should play.
This debate will require restraint on behalf of all involved if it is to escape being characterised yet again by polarised views, (often disguised) vested interest, political point scoring and conspiracy theories to the benefit of none. As part of this process, Parliament should now establish an independently appointed standing commission, similar to the Sutherland and Dilnot commissions, to initiate a mature and informed national discussion on the future of our national health system. Let us try to salvage some good from this damaging upheaval and resolve never to repeat it.