NHS 'a political football' around UK

UK flags and NHS 70 logo Image copyright JOZZ/BBC

Serious problems facing the NHS are not being tackled because politicians too often use it as a "political football," a think-tank has warned.

The four nations of the UK are failing to learn from each other, with the NHS instead used "to batter each other over the head".

Helen Howson, director of the Bevan Commission, said each nation is missing opportunities to share ideas.

These include tackling a surge in care demands from an ageing population.

Ms Howson said each nation and its health service had "a bit of the answer" but there needed to be a way of sharing the best ideas and approaches.

Speaking to BBC Wales, Health Secretary Vaughan Gething conceded that politics did sometimes "get in the way" of sensible conversations and that there was "room for improvement"

The Bevan Commission, named after the architect of the NHS, was founded in 2008 on its 60th anniversary.

The health and care think-tank is based at Swansea University.

Image caption Helen Howson said different nations would invariably do some things better than than others

Ms Howson said the NHS had "tended to be used as a political football and that is to nobody's advantage".

Mr Gething said he welcomed the Home Office changing its mind about visas to allow every nation within the UK to recruit doctors and nurses without an artificial cap.

"It would have been much more helpful if we would have been able to have a conversation between the four governments about what we are all finding to be able to make a sensible decision for the future of the service," he said.

Mr Gething said sharing of information happened between civil servants and within the medical profession but there could be improvement at the political level.

Image caption Jeremy Corbyn was in Tredegar to mark the NHS's 70th anniversary

The relative performance of the four health systems in recent years has been the focus of intense political debate.

There was a row only last week when Theresa May challenged the spending per head on the health service in England and Wales.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, visiting Tredegar on Sunday, launched an attack on the "massive inequality in even the wealthiest parts of our country" while praising the efforts of the Welsh Government in protecting health and social care spending.

Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014 described the Welsh NHS's performance as a "national scandal" and said Offa's Dyke "has become the line between life and death".

But influential international analysts the OECD later said "no consistent picture emerges of one of the United Kingdom's four health system performing better than another".

In fact, one senior OECD official told BBC Wales that the quality across the UK is "not that good" and "fairly mediocre" with great policies not being translated into great practices.

At a Bevan Commission conference in Newport on Tuesday, Jennifer Dickson, chief executive of research charity the Health Foundation said no one system in the UK was superior to the other.

But she said the discussions about health systems being shaped by politicians were "very thin, it's not a very good debate, very heated and irrelevant in many respects".

There was a more meaningful level of discussion about modernisation of hospitals, practices and community services.

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