Last Saturday members of the public and public figures came to the Royal Society of Medicine to debate the current state of the NHS, the circumstances and decisions that led to this state, and what action is needed to ensure the NHS sustains its founding principles in and beyond its 70th year. The #talkNHS event was quick to make the weekend’s national news headlines following a damning speech from a rather well-known physicist and a rather personal attack on the Secretary of State for Health, which has even led to the coining of a new term: “Huntsplaining”.
In his keynote speech, Professor Stephen Hawking warned that the crisis in the NHS is the result of political decisions, including underfunding, the public sector pay cap, and outsourcing and privatisation. He gave an inspirational account of his experiences as an NHS patient, highlighting how the care he has received has enabled him to live his life as he wants, with the rather incredible consequence that he has “contributed to major advances in our understanding of the universe”.
As well as bringing a celebrity face to the growing movement to “Save our NHS”, Hawking achieved something many NHS campaigners have had difficulty in doing. He brought a specific criticism of how the government is running the NHS—in this case by “cherry-picking evidence” to justify policies they want to implement—to the nation’s attention.
For those campaigners who lack the celebrity status of Professor Hawking, the day threw up some good ideas on how to successfully tailor campaigning efforts. Below are the top three messages:
1. Politicians are not brave – campaigners are
David Lock QC, a former Labour MP and Barrister who now specialises in health law, recognised the importance of campaigners in changing public perception. “Politicians are not brave. Campaigners change the public’s perception on an issue, and then politicians will move into that space.” Politicians will rarely move into a space if they feel the public are not already there.
A good example of this in the healthcare debate was cited by David Lock. He posited how there are very few campaigns to stop a stop smoking service or a drug rehabilitation clinic being closed, even though each £1 spent on these services might deliver more than keeping a community hospital open.
Although certain topics might be unpopular with the public, it is the job of campaigners to change their perceptions and make politicians, both local and national, feel empowered to take on these topics.
2. Campaigners can influence MPs via their postbags – the NHS is currently filling them
There were a number of MPs, current and former, at the event. Ann Keen, a former Labour Health minister and MP between 1997 and 2010, said that nothing riled her constituents more than animal welfare issues. Most of the letters she received as an MP were about fox hunting, with hardly any on the NHS.
It seems that times have changed. When we asked MPs in November 2014 in our Charity Parliamentary Monitor which issues or campaigns they received the most correspondence about, the top issues were the NHS and the “Saving the NHS” campaign. As raised at the talk, what is missing from the campaign is cohesion among campaigners, with many campaigns focussing on local issues, and few visions being promoted for how the NHS can be saved.
There is momentum behind the “Save our NHS” campaign, but it needs focus.
3. The importance of using strong peer-reviewed data to inform policy
One of the big challenges with the current debate on the NHS is the opaque use of statistics, as highlighted by the disagreement between Jeremy Hunt and Professor Hawking over the so-called “weekend effect”. On the one hand, the government pronounces the UK has more nurses now than it did in 2010, and that the evidence suggests that more people die in hospital at the weekend. On the other hand, organisations such as the Royal College of Nursing issue warnings that the NHS is operating with at 40,000 too few nurses, and one of the world’s greatest scientists states the “weekend effect” is simply the result of the secretary of state for health “cherry picking” his research to suit his argument for a 7-day NHS. In Hawking’s own words: ”one consequence of this sort of behaviour is that it leads ordinary people to not trust science at a time when scientific research and progress are more important than ever”.
Campaigners operate in a world in which there is more research being done and more data available than ever before. It takes time to conduct detailed and non-biased research, and it takes time to refute bad research.
Campaigners must invest this time: campaigns are only as strong as the evidence base they stand on
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If you would like to find out more about our research with politicians, you can find out more on the Charity Parliamentary Monitor page.