Who’s Afraid of Private Healthcare

By Angela Williams

One of my concerns regarding the current debate over the NHS Bill is the way in which the words “private healthcare” are being used by campaigners. For instance, a tweet recently posted by someone with more than 180,000 followers read: “I have only one remaining piece of advice for those of you who’ve done nothing to stop #NHSbill: get private healthcare.”

As an opponent of the Bill I’ve been working as hard as I can over the past few weeks to get it dropped. Chronic ill health has made this hard to sustain, and I’m becoming increasingly aware of a feeling that it would be okay to stop now, that even if the Bill goes through things will somehow work out all right in the end. The seductive words behind this temptation to ignore the facts are “private healthcare”.

In my working class home in the 1950s and 60s the NHS felt like something good that belonged to us and could never be taken away. We weren’t particularly embarrassed by the uncomfortable conditions of our daily lives since plenty of those around us were in the same boat. On the whole, snobbish and privileged people tended to be objects of pity, but in weaker moments it was hard to avoid the thought that they might be enjoying stuff we didn’t have and might one day aspire to. Anything “private” definitely fitted into that category.

Even so, when NHS dentistry began to run into difficulties in the 1990s I held onto the view that no one in their right mind would allow themselves to be coerced into paying extra to have their teeth done. This principled approach lasted till my teenage son was referred for orthodontic work and found to need a massive filling despite having had regular six-monthly check-ups. After that I paid to go privately, and in 2009 when I briefly experimented again with the NHS I was shocked and angry at the low standard of treatment on offer.

Despite their own principles both my parents have also paid for medical care, after developing eye problems as they’ve got older. Facing a long NHS waiting list they quite rightly decided that sight is too precious to risk. Other family members have opted for privately provided hip replacements and this too has been regarded as sensible and necessary.

So like many other staunch working class supporters of the NHS I’m painfully aware that we get better service when we pay. When opponents to the bill try to rally me with warnings about how we’ll end up with a system like they have in the States, their threats are competing with my lack of information as to what life in the US is really like outside the shiny world of movies – where most hospitals look like smart hotels – and the cheerful references in memoirs and newspaper interviews to “my gynaecologist”, “my paediatrician” and “my psychoanalyst”.

In his speech at the Westminster Rally on 7 March 2012, John Lister gave a short presentation on the recent handover to Circle, a private healthcare provider, of the NHS Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which I think makes a useful contribution towards correcting this potentially fatal misunderstanding:

Perhaps there are some more people out there who could speak up and make this vital point crystal clear: in the case of the NHS Bill the particular definition of the word “private” that we need to be focusing on right now is the one that most of the population should already be well and truly familiar with – “Not Open To The Public”.

Guest post © Angela Williams 2012. Available for non-commercial reuse with attribution under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence.

Angela Williams is the creator and editor of Literary Places and Robert Stephen Hawker: His Life and Writings.

One thought on “Who’s Afraid of Private Healthcare

  1. at the moment private care is heavily subsidised by the NHS so that fees are a lot lower than they will be once the NHS is gone. NHS trains the Drs and nurses etc. Private hosps are placed next door to NHS facilities and any complications and patients are transferred. So the current experience of “private” care is not what we will get in a few years when the NHS has collapsed

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