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17 January 2000

Mrs Winston-Fox gets flu, Mr Blair gets pneumonia

by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Whether or not there is a flu epidemic, enough people believe there is to expose the government's vulnerability on the health front.

After an unseasonably quiet couple of weeks in my surgery, I'm not too impressed by the flu epidemic. Perhaps they are all phoning NHS Direct and going (by ambulance) straight to casualty.

Yet it is clear that many have a vested interest in promoting flu. Senior doctors always welcome a winter opportunity for shroud waving in the hope of raising more funds. Gravely disappointed at the non-appearance of the millennium bug, the media are delighted to find an alternative doomsday scenario. A few inept comments by the government's chief medical officer and the nation is in the grip of another 'killer-disease' epidemic.

The key event in turning the flu drama into a crisis for the government was the admission of 87-year old Ruth Winston-Fox, mother of Lord Winston (aka fertility specialist Professor Winston, teledoc Robert Winston, Blair mate Bob Winston), to hospital following the familiar 13-hour wait on a casualty trolley.

Winston stormed off to the New Statesman to denounce New Labour's new NHS: 'Blair's health reforms have eroded specialist care, failed to eradicate the Conservative internal market and offered a cash provision that is "not as good as Poland's".' (17 January) Winston's subsequent backtracking after a roughing-up by Blair's enforcers fell a long way short of being convincing (there was no retraction of his points that the government had been 'quite deceitful' in claming that the internal market had been abolished, that fertility services have effectively been privatised, and that the reform of the House of Lords 'was not strictly honest').

The problem for Blair is that New Labour is not really interested in the NHS as a service for treating people who are ill. Its main concern is the potential of the NHS for rejuvenating individual responsibility and social networks around issues of health, through initiatives like healthy living centres, health action zones, healthy schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods, etc.

It is not surprising that all this has done nothing to improve basic healthcare, which is still languishing as a result of spending constraints imposed by the previous government and maintained by New Labour as a symbol of its fiscal rectitude. This brings us back to Mrs Winston-Fox, who is now lying on the floor of a mixed ward (which New Labour pledged to abolish) with an additional infection and a leg ulcer. The immediate consequence of all this was the appearance of a chastened prime minister before David Frost on Sunday morning promising to find some extra cash for the NHS.

Yet all is not gloom for Blair. Flu epidemics are short lived and when this one has passed, he will be able to use the perception of crisis to accelerate his plans for modernising the NHS. Before next winter Mrs Winston-Fox might be advised to look up the number of NHS Direct - and take out some private health insurance.

Michael Fitzpatrick writes on 'Tony Blair's therapeutic state' in the forthcoming February issue of LM. To take out a subscription, phone (020) 7269 9222 or email lm@informinc.co.uk

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