NHS, abortion and others

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The Independent Online

Overworked NHS staff let down by miserly governments

Overworked NHS staff let down by miserly governments

Sir: Charles Hopkins (letter, 23 March) properly admonishes those who do not recognise that the NHS has been and is very cheap - taking approximately 6.4 per cent of GDP compared with the health spending of other Western democracies of between 8 and 12 per cent, the highest being Canada and the USA. For years the NHS has represented extraordinary value for money.

Neither Mr Hopkins nor your respected healthcare commentators seek to explain why the NHS is so cheap. Nor is there mention of the effects of the wretched miserliness of successive governments on the clinicians working in the NHS. In large part the NHS has been and, under this government, remains cheap because the workforce has been seriously overworked and because of the disgraceful scrimping on maintenance budgets within our hospitals.

In most UK specialties there is one consultant carrying out the work that is being done by three to seven specialists in Germany, France or Scandinavia.

I work in a hospital where a consultant suggested a voluntary consultant cleaning roster because the hospital did not provide an adequate cleaning budget and large areas appeared dirty, littered, and squalid. I work in a Department where the ceilings drip brown stained water at numerous points where patients pass through, or are examined. One drip is on to my head as I examine patients using a machine costing well over £100,000 - the drip being barely a foot away from the machine's control panel.

It is not only the patients but also those who work in the NHS who deserve a great deal better. The Government trumpets its delivery of a patient-led NHS. It should pause and look at the needs and workplace environment of the NHS staff. Addressing those needs would really be in the patients' interests.

Consultant radiologist
Harrow, Middlesex

Abortion is the hardest of choices

Sir: Clare Wright's letter ("Admit it: abortion is used as contraceptive method of choice", 23 March) is simplistic, insulting and smacks of ignorance. Her argument accuses millions of women (and men) of having unprotected sex because they know that in the case of pregnancy an abortion is just a hospital visit away.

To suggest that women take the decision to have an abortion lightly is absurd. Whatever the underlying reasons for making that most difficult of choices, it is wrong for all concerned to bring a child into the world that is, ultimately, unwanted. Yes, most people are educated enough to know the consequences of unprotected sex but people are fallible and make mistakes. Is Ms Wright suggesting that to punish them for their mistakes they should have a "told you so" baby? How irresponsible.

London SE5

Sir: Clare Wright argues that the high annual percentage of abortions carried out in the UK compared with the number of births suggests that abortions are being used as a contraceptive rather than a last resort.

She is probably right. However, she goes on to ask: "How many of those 181,000 women took proper precautions to be really sure that they would not get pregnant, and how many of them took risks?" The thing about making babies, wanted or otherwise, is that it usually takes two, a male and a female. As long as men and boys are left out of this equation, excused of responsibility, and by implication given a green light to sow their wild oats with impunity, women and girls will have to bear the burden of sorting out the sorry mess when they find themselves in such a predicament. If the burden of responsibility was more equally impressed on our tender youth of both sexes, the disturbing numbers of abortions we currently carry out in this country could well begin to drop. I am sure this was a slip of the pen on Clare Wright's part, but it reveals some deep-seated cultural assumptions that still exist in our society even in the 21st century.

London W1

Sir: In this tiresome circular debate about abortion people seem to forget a simple point: that illegalising abortion does not significantly reduce the abortion rate (even in Catholic countries) and thus the best way to prevent abortion is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Can we please discuss the latter rather than discuss a hypothetical ban that would make no real difference to the abortion rate?


Nature and GM crops

Sir: Your article on the impact of GM crops on wildlife (21 March) failed to address the complexity of the issue. The article gives the impression that the GM technology used to create hybrid crops harms the environment more than conventional farming does by being very successful in suppressing weeds needed by certain types of wildlife. In reality, the problem lies with the specific hybrids created by the large biotech companies and with current farming practices.

The creation of GM crops is a powerful and precise technology that can be a very effective tool in the hands of plant breeders to create hybrids that are resistant to diseases and environmental stresses such as parasites and droughts. The current wave of opposition to GM crops in Europe is partly due to the particular hybrids created by the biotech industry that do not present any advantage other than to increase the profits of these companies. The industry focuses its efforts on creating hybrids that are resistant to specific weed killers, thus increasing its profit margin since a company can sell both the seeds and the accompanying weed killer. R&D should instead focus on creating GM hybrids that incorporate genes that provide natural resistance to specific threats, eliminating the need for excessive use of weed-killers.

Industrialised modern farming methods have fulfilled their purpose in times of need by increasing the volumes of agricultural produce while significantly lowering the production cost, but we now have the opportunity to revise them. Given that the developed world is not desperate to keep increasing the agricultural output, suitable GM crops can be used in sustainable farming practices where wildlife will be given the space to exist within farmed areas.


'Cheap oil' to run out

Sir: Professor Patrick Corbett points out that there can be no certainty in predicting the time that oil will run out (letter, 22 March). Noting that any finite resource starts to run out from the moment it is first exploited, he suggests that oil supply will continue for at least 60 to 90 years. A more pressing issue is predicting when "cheap oil" will run out, for this will have a major impact on economic growth worldwide, since at present oil is by far the most cost effective way of creating energy.

The end of cheap oil will therefore mean the end of cheap energy if this occurs soon. Cheap oil is predicted to come to an end when oil demand far outstrips the capacity to supply. Anyone attending a conference held by the Energy Institute last November in London on the subject of "Oil Depletion" can have been left in no doubt that there is a real possibility that we are very close to the supply/demand crunch point already.

If China continues its economic expansion at about 10 per cent per annum (which translates into an annual increase in oil consumption of China of about 10 per cent) it is hard for those of us who work in Opec countries to see how that demand can be met. Still harder to imagine how non-Opec producers could fill the gap. The behaviour of the oil price and of Opec attempting with difficulty to set new production targets all makes more sense when seen in this context.

Wiveliscombe, Somerset

AG's legal advice

Sir: In the discussion about the Attorney General's advice to the Prime Minister, there is a danger that the legality or otherwise of the attack on Iraq will be seen as depending on the advice. It does not; it is the UN Charter which is the criterion.

This is quite unambiguous. Chapter VII, Article 42 states: "... the Security Council ... may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of members of the United Nations."

Attacks on a member state are legal only when authorised by the Security Council. This is why at the time so much effort was put into getting an appropriate resolution adopted. With the failure to do so, an attack on Iraq remained illegal. Iraq's failure to conform with Security Council resolutions was not a sufficient justification, otherwise Israel would become a legitimate target.


Sir: Does it say something about the Attorney General's opinion of the Prime Minister that he felt compelled to ask him for an "unequivocal" statement that Saddam Hussein was in breach of Security Council resolutions? Is he more used to getting the other kind?

London W7

Bushmen of Botswana

Sir: Tilly Lavenas's letter of 21 March suggests that a link exists between the relocation of the Bushmen in Botswana and diamonds and De Beers.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Neither De Beers' prospecting nor any mining activity would ever require the arbitrary relocation or removal of people or any community. Indeed, at all our operations, we welcome the presence of local people to whom we can offer employment. I can also confirm that none of the prospects in the area currently show any sign of generating a viable deposit.

De Beers has sought, and received, assurance from the Government of Botswana that its relocation policy is not linked to any past, present or potential mining activity in the area. The Government has given further assurance that the resettlement programme is designed to give the Bushmen access to health and educational services available to all other Botswana people. Whilst we acknowledge that the policy is controversial and may not be welcomed by all parties, this is the decision of the democratically elected Government of Botswana.

Director, External Affairs
De Beers Group
London EC1

Burmese teak

Sir: We again enter the debate on "fair trade" ("Revealed: Sale of garden furniture in Britain is propping up a brutal regime", 24 March). The answer to a scenario like this is never simple. If some suppliers stop buying teak from Burma, will everyone else? Unless the entire industry is prepared to follow suit then the situation can never change.

Will the regime not simply take a higher proportion of the profits from remaining sales, leaving the little guy to feel the pinch; or worse, will it not become more brutal, punishing the only ones it can reach in anger - its own citizens? Greenpeace arbitrarily naming and shaming large companies into ceasing a trading relationship hurts only the weak that it seeks to protect. Can Greenpeace claim then to have their best interests at heart? CHRIS BURL
Gateshead, Tyne & Wear

Wind turbines

Sir: I was delighted to read the letter from Andrew Turner on wind turbines (18 March) entirely reflecting my own viewpoint, that far from being offensive visually, they are pleasing on the eye.

I am on my return journey from a tour of northern Spain through some of the most beautiful landscapes such as Navarra, Rioja and the mountainous areas around. On many of the snow-capped mountains elegantly lining the horizon are huge wind farms, sometimes over a hundred turbines at a time. They do not spoil even the most outstanding areas of natural beauty providing there is wide open space.

The animosity towards wind farms would be far better directed at fighting the frightening expansion of airports with the subsequent dangerous consequences for our planet.

Newton Abbot, Devon

Secrets and the truth

Sir: Dr John Reid says that the Conservative Party deputy chairman Howard Flight was sacked for telling the truth ("Jubilant Labour condemns Tories' 'secret agenda' of spending cuts", 26 March). If that is the case there is no danger to anyone on the Labour front bench.

Selby, North Yorkshire

Victimising Gypsies

Sir: The current racist and hysterical demonisation of Gypsies and travellers is simply appalling. So much for having learnt anything over the past 60 years. This all shows in its true light, once again, an economic and social system that forever causes the scapegoating and victimisation of the most oppressed and marginalised groups in society.


Looted from Ethiopia

Sir: The British Library has been compelled to return an Italian book to Benevento (report, 24 March). The law is to be changed, but it will only apply to items looted during the Nazi era. But what of the hundreds of Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts looted from Magdala in 1868 by General Napier's forces, many of which are in the possession of the British Library?

London W1

Date with destiny

Sir: It is very numerological of Tony Blair to choose 5 May 2005 as the date of the general election, since it is 5/5/5. What a pity 6 June 2006 is not going to be a Thursday; if it had been I'm sure he would

have waited the full term, if only to scare the conspiracy theorists.