Health reporters and editors of local and national news media are urged today to lend their voice to the growing numbers of health professionals, academics and campaigners opposing Andrew Lansley’s controversial Health and Social Care Bill, now before Parliament.
Pressure group Health Emergency sounds the alert in a detailed 6-page Press Briefing on the 367-page Bill and its implications. It warns that Mr Lansley’s plans threaten to reduce information on health services to the media and local public, and leave patients with less knowledge and influence n local decisions than ever before.
The Bill, which only applies to England, proposes to scrap existing bodies such as Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities which are at present required to meet in public and publish Board papers to press and public.
These would be replaced by a single, remote NHS Commissioning Board, and a network of GP consortia: but the Bill would allow each of these bodies to meet in secret, and publish no Board papers. They would not even be obliged to consult the pubic on changes including cuts and closures of local services.
With NHS Trusts also to be abolished and replaced by Foundation Trusts, most of which also meet behind closed doors and publish minimal information, it becomes possible for far-reaching changes to be pushed through while local people are kept in the dark.
“The first you will hear about your local A&E closing or a change of provider for a local service will be through a Press Release – after the decision has been taken,” says Health Emergency Director Dr John Lister.
“And there will inevitably be cuts, because the NHS is being compelled by the government to make an unprecedented £20 billion in “efficiency” savings by 2014.”
Journalists will no longer be able to track local changes, find financial information or check out stories using Board Papers. Instead carefully laundered annual accounts will be presented once a year to a token “public” session, while information will be closely managed, and the media fed a diet of carefully-spun PR handouts.
“This level of media black-out would make it extremely difficult even to frame questions under the Freedom of Information Act,” warns Dr Lister.
Health Emergency also dismisses Mr Lansley’s gestures towards public scrutiny:
“We can tell which way the system is going from the way new GP consortia have already been set up around the country with no prior consultation or debate with patients and public,” says Dr Lister.
“We can expect them to continue with just as little concern for their patients’ views as they decide which services to cut, and what treatments to withdraw from the NHS to save money.
“Ministers have claimed there would be scrutiny through new council Health and Wellbeing Committees, but the Bill makes clear these would be stitched up between council officers and consortia with only token public involvement, and the so-called “Local Healthwatch” bodies are feeble local committees controlled by the Care Quality Commission, charged with giving information and advice.”
Dr Lister concluded with an appeal to journalists and editors to protect their access to information on health services:
“If there is to be no genuine public scrutiny in the spending of £80 billion or more of NHS budgets, it opens the door to corruption and mismanagement.
“The wider public depends upon the media for information on their health services, and can only be properly informed if journalists are allowed to access information and pose awkward questions of those in control.
“It’s time for editors and health reporters to speak out, before the shutters come down and we are all left in the dark.”