Mark Steel: Exporting the NHS won't make it better

The NHS has a global reputation not because it's a brand, but because it's free

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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 Health Service will be encouraged to make profits by setting up businesses abroad, to take advantage of the NHS 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's bloody jeans or Walkers sodding 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 think the popularity of the NHS is down to the logo, and if only our banks could come up with something as catchy, people would say: "Barclays is the envy of the world. People come from right across Europe to use their cash machines."

And 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, making the most of the worldwide reputation by opening profitable wards across the world, with adverts saying: "Get sorted out sooner and back to good humour, Let Leicester Infirmary whip out your tumour."

And in today's global market place, the NHS will need to diversify into other areas of business opportunity. It can start a chain of restaurants with nurses as waitresses, where you're met at the door by a receptionist who says: "I'm afraid there are no seats available for two months, but we could squeeze you on to a trolley." Consultants will tell you they can't remove your gall stones until April, as they've got a lot of private work on since University Hospital of Cardiff took up a 40 per cent share of Shell Oil.

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 at last, 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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