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Lucid and insightful: Matt Hancock reviews 'Life Support'

3 min read

Written with the realistic eye of the outsider, Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott have accomplished the tricky balance of presenting a constructive critique of the NHS as it emerges from pandemic, that is both informed and accurate

We all care about the future of the NHS. As patients and taxpayers, we’re all invested in it. Yet too often the debate about the future of the health service is driven by those with an interest in the delivery of the NHS. There’s a view held by many NHS insiders that those outside the health service can’t possibly understand how it works, or care about its future. 

Yet, as so often in life, the best challenge comes from a new perspective. 

In Life Support Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott pull off that tricky balance of a constructive critique of the NHS as it emerges from the pandemic that is both informed and accurate, but brings the realistic eye of the outsider. 

The book accomplishes the goal of being sympathetic to the mission of the NHS, yet also unabashed in its analysis. It tells the story of failures of patient safety that both horrify and sadly don’t surprise, while its analysis of waste is ruthless. There are times when the page-turning story-telling slips into anecdotage, but also sections of shocking clarity.

Analysing the NHS’s problems is the easy bit. The hard part is driving meaningful improvements

The sense that the NHS workforce is less than the sum of its parts runs through. I think that has changed during the pandemic. The NHS is finally starting to learn that if you look after your staff, you look after your patients through them. But there is clearly still a long way to go.

The NHS has made serious strides with its use of technology in the last few years. The old view that the NHS is different to everywhere else, and so needs bespoke answers to every problem, is the root of many of the worst problems. But the lucid description of how technology can improve the health of the nation is perhaps the most insightful and constructive part of the book. 

Analysing the NHS’s problems is the easy bit. The hard part is driving meaningful improvements – and it is here that I’d have liked to hear more from the authors. The pandemic has driven change in the NHS faster than at any point in its history. Now is the moment to capture the can-do spirit of reform – on staffing, data, research, and technology – that the crisis catalysed. 

Anyone who, like me, loves the NHS because of what it has done for their loved ones and family shares an interest in its future success. So, to NHS lovers and critics alike, it really matters to understand the challenges the NHS faces today, and understand how they can be addressed without the application of an infinitely greater proportion of our national income. The authors produce a thoughtful and detailed contribution to that debate.

While the NHS is not perfect, we must never forget the reasons why we are so very proud of it. During this country’s greatest hour of need it was doctors, nurses, porters, pharmacists, cleaners and clinicians who put themselves selflessly at risk, as the pandemic ruthlessly ripped through our lives. It’s these amazing men and women who are not only the heart and soul of the NHS, but society too.

Matt Hancock is Conservative MP for West Suffolk and former secretary of state for health and social care

Life Support: The state of the NHS in an age of pandemics
Written by: Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott 
Publisher: Biteback

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