It is no secret that the pressure on resources in the National Health Service is enormous. It is, however, refreshing that questions of ideology are increasingly put to one side. Until recently, questions about who treats us when we are sick were politically explosive. But, as the experience of other European countries clearly shows, party politics and health need not be eternal twins.
The readiness of Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, to shed the old baggage should be welcomed. The fact that elderly patients in NHS hospitals may in future be sent to private nursing homes does not represent a cave-in to the power of private health. It is merely a rational acknowledgement of the best way to use the resources available.
Under the existing system, elderly patients stay in hospital beds that they do not really need, because other beds are not available. Hospital beds cost three times more - £1,200 instead of £400 a week - than a bed in a private nursing home. Thus, transferring elderly patients into private nursing homes can free up hospital beds that would otherwise be unavailable and are badly needed. A fifth of hospital beds are reckoned to be inappropriately occupied, costing the NHS £1m a day. In that respect, the new scheme means a host of winners, and no losers.
Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary, was opposed to development of the relationship between the private sector and the NHS. Since his departure to become champion loser in the London mayoral race, however, attitudes at the Department of Health have opened up. Policies are no longer decided on the basis of whether they fit ideological norms.
Mr Milburn has admitted that the current system of paying for long-term care of the elderly is "chaotic and unfair". A Royal Commission report published last year proposed that all nursing care - not just in hospital, but also in nursing homes - should be free. Nurses have demanded an end to "state-supported robbery" of patients. The Government has appeared cautiously sympathetic to the demands for change.
In an ideal world, the NHS would not need to lean on private health-care providers at all. But the new system will not eat away at the principle of cost-free provision for the patients. On the contrary: the NHS will be able help more patients for less money. If the political sting can be removed from questions of health care in Britain, Labour will deserve to be remembered for that alone.
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