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The roots of the NHS scandal are in a culture that grants human life no absolute value

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-07-14 at 08.14.54Here are the figures.  14 hospital trusts were investigated by the hospital review commissioned by Jeremy Hunt.  Ten require "urgent action".  21 are still failing critically ill patients.  The best part of 3500 people may have died needlessly.  According to the Mail on Sunday, the Health Secretary will make a statement to the Commons on Tuesday.  Hunt has already set out his plans to improve the performance of hospitals - a new "Duty of Candour", the publication of more performance data, clearer responsibility for patient care, new "deep-dive" inspections - and so on.

The Health Secretary has gradually moved, partly under pressure from Conservative backbenchers, to put some of the blame where it belongs - on the consequences of Labour's command and control targets regime.  As the paper points out, Alan Johnson, then the Health Secretary, gave the  Health his "absolute assurance" in 2009, that what was happening in Mid-Staffs was "not indicative of what’s happening in the NHS".  This was untrue, and the Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie wants an inquiry into who knew what, and when.

None the less, party politics and official inquiries only get one so far.  The horrifying treatment of some elderly people in our hospitals and care homes is a symptom of cultural change - one in which there is no longer a presumption that older people should be treated as possessing experience and wisdom, and in which human life itself is no longer seen as possessing absolute value.  "It has saddened me that in the past four months I have heard almost no one use the word “kindness”, writes Camilla Cavendish behind the Sunday Times paywall.

Cavendish was put in charge by the Government with conducting a review into NHS healthcare assistants.  She argues for proper teamwork, shared responsibility, shorter shifts and "weeding out staff who are not caring" (easier said than done).  But it's evident to anyone who reads her piece or who has followed the hospital scandals, that - as the headline on her article puts it -  "What the NHS needs is a degree of kindness. The rest can be taught."  In Britain, that kindness has been rooted in absolute values, formed by the country's Christian tradition.

The country is moving from one in which the churches were the main manifestation of religion to one in which there are many more - and in which the place of religion itself is under question.  But, as Philip Blond suggests on this site today, the faith communities (and specifically the Church of England) have much to contribute in ensuring that public services are stronger and better.  If government was more skilled at utilising the churches - and if some in them didn't see caring as the state's job - older people in our hospitals and institutions would get better care.


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