Is Jeremy Hunt the most hated, distrusted Health Secretary of all time? This might be disputed, after all, no one has made a viral rap song about Jeremy the way they did for Lansley (perhaps it seems too easy) but Hunt seems to be intent on securing the title. His attack on doctors that also happens to be an attack on unions is classic Tory ideology, ramped up like the kill-count in the final instalment of an over-squeezed 1980s movie franchise. Yet it's his willingness to continue with the post-truth politics that characterised the EU referendum that really bothers me. This government is proving to have more spin than Sonic the Hedgehog and the NHS will die as a result.
I'm not talking about his love of completely unscientific homeopathy and the fact that he keeps foisting this on health experts, or that he wants to add unproven Traditional Chinese Medicines to the mix in a bid that sounds like the perfect storm of Tory ideals: localism, traditionalism and consumer choice. Seriously, do these sound like the best three pillars of medicine? No, it's when he claims to be increasing investment in vital health research but is actually cutting budgets - that's what really gets my inner rapper going.
Recently the Health Secretary released a press statement about the latest round of NIHR research funding where the messaging was clear: this is the 'the largest ever investment into health research.' Reading this statement and its beatification by the Daily Mail and chums alarm bells rang on my bullshit-o-meter. They were mentioning 'new investment' and how it was mind-bogglingly large but also let slip about the success of 'previous rounds of funding'. There was a glaring absence of any links or info that would inform the reader just how much that previous round had been i.e. how much of an increase is 'largest ever'?
In the end it was easier to submit an FOI request than to discover the figures online. Here's how the situation breaks down. In 2011, a 5 year fund of £800 million was awarded. In 2016, another 5 year fund of £816 million was awarded - "the biggest ever". The money is spread out evenly over each 5 year period. So, over a 10 year period, the annual spend has risen from £160 to £163.2 million or an annual increase of 0.2%. Now, inflation is pretty low at the moment and who knows what will happen over the next 5 years, but it's safe to say this is a real terms decrease in funding: a cut, not an increase.
Earlier this year, Jeremy was admonished by the Kings Fund for similar wool-pulling misrepresentation of numbers when he claimed to be giving the NHS the 'sixth biggest increase in history' when it was more like the 28th biggest increase.
These deliberate discrepancies are a regular feature of the doctors' strike too. Theresa May joined Hunt in the sound-bite-over-fact politics of claiming we have 'record levels of funding' and doctors when almost daily we hear that the NHS is underfunded, underdoctored and overstretched after 6 years of austerity that have seen funds flatline while demand soars ballistically - increases are at 0.2% while demand rises at 4%.
The government seems to have adopted this method as policy. When faced with one of the narrowest referendum results in UK history, David Davis says "The mandate for [Brexit] is overwhelming" and "a bigger vote for Brexit than that won by any UK Government in history." In this he is comparing the 17.3 million vote for remaining in the EU in 1975 with the 17.4 million vote for leaving the EU in 2016. The recent vote to leave is 'bigger' and even the 'biggest ever' but the mandate is actually one of the smallest on record. A preference of 52% in 2016 is not bigger than a winning division of 67%, despite having 100,000 more votes. In fact, that increase in votes is woeful given the voting population increased by 6 million in that time and turnout was much higher this year.
These misrepresentations of 'bigger numbers' is like someone claiming that this year's remake of Ghostbusters is much more popular than the 1983 original because it took $46 million in its opening weekend as opposed to $13 million. We can all see the flaws when it's laid out like this (or when we pay to see the latest Ghostbusters) but the government regularly only presents the "biggest" half of the picture and sadly this is too often shared without scrutiny by the overstretched or outright friendly press.
The EU referendum was a major moment for post-truth politics. The Conservatives launched a referendum and then managed to spearhead both sides of it (is it just me or does it sound dodgy when you say it like that?) Both campaigns have been denounced as deliberately misleading from democracy champions and cross-party committees. As we move forward, can we afford to accept post-truth misrepresentations of data and statistics while we stare down the barrel of Brexit and are already neck-deep in the devastation of 6 years of austerity?
Our NHS is being strangled to death by ongoing cuts while our Health Secretary is lying about levels of funding. The vast majority of NHS leaders believe that Brexit will exacerbate staffing and funding crises while Jeremy Hunt boasts of a 1,500 increase in student doctors which he claims will replace 88,000 foreign born doctors by 2025. Nothing this man says stands up and neither will our NHS if we let one-sided messaging dominate politics any longer.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said that there had been an increase of 0.002% in NHS research funding. In fact, it was a 0.2% increase.
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