Late last summer I went on holiday with my family to the beautiful area of Speyside in Scotland. It was the first time we had ever ventured so far north and we had an amazing time enjoying the scenery, the history and not least the fine variety of whisky distilleries.
The only problem with our holiday is that Aviemore and all points north are a long drive from the midlands. Sadly the eight hour journey proved to be a little too much for my stepfather and within a very short space of time of arriving back home he was rushed into hospital.
The doctors, nurses and support staff of the NHS were superb. My stepdad was quickly assessed as having infected gall stones, he was cared for for more than a week as the infection safely subsided and was told he would have to have keyhole surgery 4 weeks later to have the stones removed.
Although his operation was delayed by a week it was successfully carried out and all of the necessary subsequent GP appointments were made easily, when he needed them and delivered with first rate awareness of his needs.
I’m delighted to write that by early November he had been given the all clear to travel on his next long journey, this time a visit to Las Vegas. Not bad for someone pushing 80 is it?
The NHS for my stepfather was amazing. It did everything he could have hoped with no fuss, just quiet efficiency and excellent care. For him and thousands like him there is no crisis in the National Health Service, he was a young man when it was first established under the great Aneurin Bevin and it continues to deliver today.
There are thousands of people up and down the country who will tell similar tales but just as crucially there are thousands more who will tell you that the service is beginning to creak under the pressures of budgetary restraint and an increasingly elderly and, clinically at least, more demanding population.
Sadly with the general election drawing near our perhaps greatest national treasure is becoming once more a political football.
The Conservative Party will tell voters they have protected the NHS for the past five years.
It would certainly seem there are large proportions of the electorate who don’t subscribe to this view. Look no further than Mr Cameron’s uncomfortable recent appearance at the Age UK Conference when he was heckled for defending the increasingly costly use of private sector staffing in nursing services.
Even more difficult for Mr Cameron is the fact that the heckles, from what may normally be expected to be a fairly sedate forum, were based entirely around justified grievances.
Hospitals are paying more and more for private sector bank staff. One example from my own area highlights that over Christmas an agency nurse was paid £1,416 for a twelve hour A and E shift, eight times more than a staff nurse at the same level.
As voters become increasingly worried about what will happen to our NHS these type of examples do no good in providing reassurance that it is save in Conservative hands.
There is undoubtedly a role for the private sector in the health service particularly around ancillary and support services. The last Labour government recognised that fact as well as the current administration.
I would venture to say that most people are not too bothered about who provides their health care to them under the NHS umbrella, but rather whether they are delivered cost effectively, to a high standard and in a timely fashion.
The real concern of course is that those three principles are starting to suffer, which ultimately is the reason for so much dissatisfaction.
We know that unlike my stepfather at the moment one in four people can’t get a GP appointment within a week, or occasionally at all. What happens when they can’t is obvious. They will struggle to already overstretched Accident and Emergency departments where more often than not they simply have to sit and wait.
In the past year more than one million people have waited more than four hours to be admitted to A and E units. Put into context that is more than three times as many as the last year of the previous Labour government.
At the same time more than half of hospital nurses are now saying that their wards are dangerously understaffed.
With a focus on top down reorganisation and ideological, rather than evidenced based, support for the private sector there is a real worry that the current Conservative-led coalition government are sleep walking our health service into a deep and possibly irrevocable crisis.
We can be under no misapprehension however that party politics is at play here and it is a party politics which in many respects plays directly to many of our congregations in the Catholic Church.
When you visit churches around the country, to put this point delicately, you cannot fail to notice that our congregations are not necessarily the youngest demographic in the world. Many for example are enjoying their retirement.
Both main parties are well aware that older people are much more likely to vote than younger ones and that they are much more likely to be regular users of our health service.
For the past five years, rightly in my opinion, the current government have protected retired people from the worst of the government cuts. Mr Cameron is hoping that in doing so that segment of the population you can rely on to turn out on voting day will be more likely to remain or become affiliated to his party.
At the same time Labour, once again rightly, are making sure voters are aware of the precarious state of the NHS and that, as the party who founded it and who has protected it for nearly 70 years, older people and their families will prioritise such a vital issue when it comes to polling day.
Opinion polls consistently tell us that voters trust the Tories more on the economy and Labour on protecting vital public services with the NHS being at the very top of the list.
Anyone who tells you that our health service is going to fall apart in the next couple of years is simply wrong. It will not. But it is in jeopardy. The changes not only to services but to culture which are being made may well be irreversible in five years time.
When Bill Clinton first became president of the United States his campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ when focussing on why people vote as they do.
What many people do not realise is that there was another part to that strategy, ‘Don’t forget health care’.
The battle lines are drawn and soon it will be time to decide which is most important to you.