Mark Steel: Selling it abroad won't make it better

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The Independent Online

Someone I know was once contacted by an advertising agency, who told him: "We'd love you to star in our latest adverts, because you have a reputation as someone whose opinion can't be bought. And that gives you integrity." Health Minister Anne Milton follows a similar logic, because she's announced that the NHS will be encouraged to make profits by setting up businesses abroad, to take advantage of the brand's "worldwide reputation".

She has a point, although hopefully someone in parliament might point out a detail she's missed, and say: "With respect to the honourable member, the reason it has a worldwide reputation is because it's not run for profit so it's free, not because it's a well-known brand like Levi jeans or Walkers' crisps, so to turn that into a business would be like saying 'People love the Dalai Lama as he's all calm and peaceful so let's get him to sell landmines', you steaming great Tory idiot."

She must have watched the NHS bit of the Olympics opening ceremony thinking: "Well done, Danny, for exploiting the NHS brand. We can sell the health service to Japan now and make millions, as they'll think all the beds have dancing children underneath."

Maybe she thinks the reason it's been free for the past 60 years is a marketing ploy to attract customer loyalty, the way you don't have to pay for the first month of a Sky sports package. So now each NHS trust will be free to sell itself as a business across the world, with adverts saying: "Get sorted out sooner and back to good humour, Let Leicester Infirmary whip out your tumour."

Then we can exploit everyone's brand. The people in each town who are loved for looking after the elderly will get a visit from the Government, to be told: "You're very popular, so put that reputation to some use, by setting up a company that charges for helping blind people across the road." And a minister will declare: "These changes had to be made, but the spirit of the Investec NHS in alliance with EDF Heart Transplants remains exactly the same as ever."

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