Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The minister, the civil servant and those "killer facts"

"We all know the status quo is unsustainable and services have to change" - Lesley Griffiths, 23 May 2012

Lesley Griffiths probably didn't expect things would go so badly wrong so soon. 
The Health minister always knew the changes Labour want to make to the health service in Wales would be unpopular. 
That was proven in 2007 when they were battered over plans to close Llanelli and Llandudno hospitals.
That year saw Plaid gain both seats and Labour slumped to 26 seats, forcing it into coalition.
This time round they were freed from the One Wales coalition with Plaid Cymru, which put the cuts on hold. 
 In 2011 Lesley Griffiths was installed in the hot seat with a brief to push through the reforms. Crucially it had to be done early in the electoral cycle or Labour would suffer at the polls again. Labour was learning lessons on how to sell unpopular reforms that involved downgrading and centralising health services.
 In May this year the BBC revealed it was engaged in a PR strategy to sell the proposals. Alongside this hard sell, Marcus Longley was hired as an "independent academic" to push the case for change.
 There is a lot to push against - doctors, nurses and the local community are up in arms over the proposed changes. In Aberystwyth, doctors passed a motion of no confidence in the health board; in Llanelli Labour AMs and MPs hypocritically joined mass protests against the downgrading.
 This time round the onus was put on the local health boards to lead on the matter - allowing lesley and labour to try to distance themselves from the unpopular decision to close or reduce local services. Coincidentally Lesley gave the boards a £12.4m cash boost in May 2012 - despite claiming in November 2011 that there would be no such bailout.
The case for change was made by strongly by Longley in his report, although he admitted there was often no evidence to back up his claims. He undermined the Welsh NHS by claiming some services were on the verge of collapse... without specifying which ones. It was not an academic report but one suited to a clear political agenda. 
 Today we saw how the report's author was desperate for "killer facts" (we're not making this up) to make the case for change. This "independent expert" admitted the facts didn't back up the case he was being asked to make. He admitted to top civil servants in Lesley's department that he didn't have enough facts to make the case for "we might have hoped for".
 In response Dr Chris Jones, both medical director of the NHS in Wales and a top Welsh Government official, asks Prof Longley to make his report "more positive if possible i.e describing a persuasive vision of how things could be better".

 Here in the North, we will soon get to hear what the changes will entail. On Thursday 17th July the proposed changes go before the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. On the table are radical proposals that could see:
• The closure of some of the North's 19 community hospitals;
• The centralisation of certain specialist services in one of the three main district general hospitals
• The closure of all Level 3 neonatal intensive care cots in the region, with the service being provided in Arrowe Park, Liverpool.

The last proposal, which is one of two options before the board, would see high-risk maternity cases being transferred over the border - making a stressful time intolerable for many people who would have to travel vast distances to see loved ones.

In May 2011, Lesley Griffiths was elected as Wrecsam's AM. I was among the candidates she beat. After the count was announced, I asked her to ensure that she protected Wrecsam's Special Care Baby Unit and she publicly promised she would. I wonder if she'd make the same promise today.

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