We have two weeks to save the NHS, say leading academics

Literary festival hears rallying cry against 'Bill that will kill the health service'

John Walsh
Tuesday 06 March 2012 01:00
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Leading health academics Colin Leys and Allyson Pollock yesterday issued a rallying call to everyone who wants to save the NHS. This is, they both said, a crucial fortnight. With the Liberal Democrat conference looming, which they both saw as a last-chance opportunity to stop the Lansley reforms, they largely ignored their brief from the Bath Festival of Literature – to talk about the long-term future of the service at an Independent Voices debate entitled "Is the NHS sacred?"

"This Bill will destroy the NHS," said Ms Pollock, London University professor of Health Policy and Health Services Research. "If you care for the future, you need to focus now on stopping the Bill. This is a terrifying, Big-Bang moment, because Lansley and his team are moving us to a mixed-financing system similar to that in the US."

"It will be the end of free care for all," said Mr Leys, emeritus professor of political science at Goldsmiths' College. The future he foresaw would be one in which "community care will contract and decline, everyone who can afford to will go private and all we'll be left with is a much-reduced service for the poor".

He was cheered when he said he was surprised to see the White Paper on health reform "sprung on us shortly after the Coalition came to power because there was nothing about it in the manifesto of either party." Little by little, he warned, "the policy table at the Health Department [has come] to be filled by people with a private-sector agenda." Yet all the evidence is that the NHS leads the world in terms of outcomes, he said.

Libyan's novel named as 'Big Bath Read'

A special guest at the festival was Hisham Matar, the Libyan novelist shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2006 for his novel In the Country of Men, set in Tripoli in 1979.

The narrator of the book is a nine-year-old boy whose father falls foul of the Gadaffi authorities and disappears one day.

Matar flew in from Egypt (where he now lives) to appear at the festival before a packed and appreciative audience. The festival director James Runcie, pictured, chose the novel as this year's Big Bath Read – the one book he urges everyone to buy – and told the audience it was a peerless study of "how far fear and terror can spread into a country and affect and corrode human relationships".

Matar, who wore jeans, trainers, a jumper and geek spectacles, turned out to be more of a romantic than a seditionary. His book began, he said, as a poem about remembering his first taste of a mulberry as a child and telling his parents it must be God's mistake because nothing on earth could be so beautiful.

At the festival: today's highlights

11.15am Susan Greenfield on Identity. How do we know who we are?

1pm Independent Voices: Why are we so neurotic about food? With Candida Crewe, Emma Ruch and Zoë Harcombe

6.15pm Ian Kershaw. Why did the end of the Second World War drag on for so long? Hitler's biographer examines the evidence.

8pm Tariq Ali on Barack Obama. He argues that "the wind that drove him into the White House... was the symbiosis of big money and big politics".

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