Jon Ashworth: “My dad drank a bottle of whisky a day and didn’t get any help. I’ve got a chance to do something about it”
Growing up with an alcoholic father, Jon Ashworth has first-hand experience of the devastating impact of problem drinking. On a visit to Poole Hospital, he talks to David Singleton about the battle against addiction and the fight to secure the future of the NHS
“So what would happen,” Jonathan Ashworth asks, “if I went out on Friday night and got really drunk and fell over and smashed my head?”
The shadow health secretary may have just turned 40, but friends need not worry that he is in the throes of a booze-fuelled mid-life crisis. Rather the Labour frontbencher is at Poole hospital for one of his regular trips out of Westminster to see what’s really happening on the frontline of the NHS.
Ashworth has taken the train to Dorset, chiefly to see the hospital’s alcohol care team in action. It was back in December 2016 that the MP first talked about his childhood memories of growing up with an alcoholic father.
At last year’s Labour conference, he announced plans to invest £13.5m in alcohol care teams, which have been found to play a critical role in reducing future hospital admissions and ambulance call-outs. Giving each general district hospital three specialist staff could save as much as £42m, according to research highlighted by Labour.
Last month, the government appeared to agree with Ashworth’s thinking. The NHS long-term plan announced that alcohol care teams will be rolled out in hospitals with the highest number of alcohol-related admissions. This will be delivered in the 25% worst affected parts of the country and could prevent 50,000 admissions and almost 250,000 bed days over five years, the plan states.
Labour wants to go further by ensuring that every district general hospital in England has a fully-staffed alcohol care team. Poole hospital is one place that already has a thriving team and Ashworth is keen to hear all about it.
“People with alcohol dependency are not getting the support in the community that they should,” he tells the hospital execs who greet him at Poole. “There are all kinds of issues in the way that alcohol services have been cut back and fragmented. It’s also a personal issue for me. You may have seen that my dad was an alcoholic. He actually died as a result of his alcoholism. So not only is it a priority for me as someone who aspires to be the nation’s health secretary, it’s a priority for me anyway because I don’t think that any child should have to go through that.
“These sort of initiatives and projects are exactly the sorts of things we should be seeing more of across the country. So I’m really quite excited to be here to listen to what you’re doing, to learn more about it and to be a champion for you.”
As the shadow health secretary and various senior figures from the NHS trust sit around a large oval table, the hospital’s head of addiction services, Graeme White, reveals how he got the alcohol team off the ground. He was able to prove the devastating impact of alcohol by exploring why patients across the board had attended Poole hospital.
When the finance department had crunched the numbers, they established that alcohol-related issues had cost a whopping £1.7m over 12 months. From there, the alcohol care team was born.
Ashworth hears how service users can range from someone who has fallen off their yacht in the affluent Sandbanks area (where residents include former football managers Harry Redknapp and Graeme Souness) to a “21-year-old in a shellsuit”.
But as well as dealing with hospital patients who have come to harm after clearly drinking too much, the service is keen to catch the ‘walking wounded’ whose alcoholism is less obvious. To that end, the hospital is now screening around 20,000 people a year. “The reason we’re here is to stop those people coming into hospital,” says White.
Walking through the hospital later, even the man who has been shadow health secretary for more than two years is shocked to learn just how badly alcoholism can drain NHS resources. A nurse tells him that at one point just before Christmas, eight out of the hospital’s 12 intensive care beds were taken up by people with alcohol-related issues. The intensive care beds are usually reserved for patients with respiratory failure and those requiring head or neck surgery. Taken aback, Ashworth asks to have the statistic repeated so that he can fully process it.
As the walkabout continues, the shadow health secretary is often treated like something approaching minor royalty. “How should the staff address you?”, the hospital’s chief operating officer asks him. “Lord Ashworth,” comes the joshing reply, followed by much laughter. “No honestly, just Jon is fine.”
On the ward, the always-polite MP apologises for getting in the way of nurses and chats affably to senior staff. “How is Brexit affecting you?” he asks. The main gripe that comes back is the government’s plan to set a salary threshold of £30,000 for skilled immigrants after the UK leaves the European Union.
Ashworth has already called on ministers to rule out the cap for international NHS staff and he is not surprised to learn that it would be disastrous for the hospital, which has plenty of nursing staff earning less than £30,000.
The shadow health secretary also hears how the removal of the NHS student nurse bursary has made life much harder for hospital bosses. Once again, the Labour frontbencher and the NHS staff are on the same page. “I’m glad you brought that up,” Ashworth says. “We’ll bring that back.”
As Ashworth sits down with The House in the chief operating officer’s office, he’s clearly impressed by what he’s just seen. Especially the “very innovative, very impressive” alcohol care team. He’s also optimistic that ministers are starting to move in the right direction in this area. “It looks like some of the arguments we’ve been making around alcohol and needing to do more around alcohol seem to be bearing fruit and that’s encouraging,” he says.
With alcohol care teams getting the thumbs up in the long-term plan, does he think that the government is stealing his ideas? “Maybe they are stealing my ideas, but I’m delighted that they’ve been listening to some of the arguments we’ve been making.
“I wish they’d go further and reverse the deep cuts they’ve imposed on the sector for many years now and are going to keep imposing on the sector. But certainly, it does seem that we’re making some progress in the area.”
When it comes to the NHS more broadly, Ashworth says the workforce is his top priority. In a recent interview with The House, Matt Hancock identified three areas of concern: workforce, tech and prevention. But Ashworth argues that the health secretary is merely paying lip service to the issue.
“The NHS is short of 100,000 staff. The projections in the next 10 years are that the staff shortages will escalate to 250,000. We’ve been hearing today about staffing issues here at this hospital. We’ve heard how European staff – Spanish and Italian nurses – don’t want to stay perhaps as long as they have in the past. Staff on the frontline are overworked and we have a huge retention problem. Although the government came forward with a long-term plan for the NHS a few weeks ago, there was no credible work plan.”
To illustrate a further dimension to the workforce problem, Ashworth cites a recent visit to another hospital where he met a ward registrar whose husband does the same job. “She was saying to me that not once – not once! – since they became NHS employees have they shared a Christmas Day together with their five-year-old. We’ve got to get better at supporting our staff on the frontline.”
Warming to the theme, he continues: “We’ve always relied on international labour in the NHS, but – here’s the fundamental thing – that’s not going to last forever. Because as economies develop there’s going to be huge competition for health staff across the world.
“China is short of 200,000 paediatricians and 160,000 GPs, India is short of 2.4 million nurses. These are economies investing in their health systems, so there’s going to be greater global competition for health staff across the world.
“So the answer has to be we have to start investing in our staff again. Looking at how we expand training places, looking at how we work with our staff, looking at new ways to recruit into the NHS, through apprenticeships, through further education. That has to be part of the future and this is something we’re really focusing on and actually, we’re going to be developing and talking more about in policy terms over the coming weeks and months.”
So would Ashworth rip up the government’s long-term plan and plunge the NHS into yet more uncertainty? The shadow health secretary insists he’s merely asking legitimate questions about it.
“There’s lots of welcome aspirations in the long-term plan – improving cancer care, improving cardiovascular care – but there’s a big hole where the staff should be,” he says.
“There’s a thing on Twitter at the moment where you do a picture of yourself 10 years ago. If you look at the NHS 10 years ago, targets were being met under the Labour government, satisfaction ratings were high. Ten years later you’ve got 4.3 million on the waiting list; 2.5 million people wait more than four hours in A&E; you’ve got 26,000 people waiting beyond two months for cancer care, and we’re short of 100,000 staff after years of austerity in the NHS. So it’s not a case of ripping up the plan. It’s asking legitimate questions about whether it can be delivered.”
The big question for Labour is how it plans to pay for the various expensive NHS reforms that Ashworth is promoting. The party has repeatedly said the cash would come from taxing high earners, but what about a dedicated NHS tax?
A year ago, Ashworth was quoted saying that a dedicated NHS tax was “an interesting debate and it’s a debate that we should engage in”. But 12 months later, he appears to have lost interest. If he ever really had any interest in the idea to start with, that is.
He says: “I was making the point that if you say to the British people, we’re prepared to put up tax for the richest in society in order to fund the NHS, I think you could command confidence for that type of tax increase and that’s what Gordon Brown successfully did. We are prepared to increase tax for the top 5% in society and make some changes to corporation tax in order to fund our commitment to the NHS, but no I don’t think a specific new NHS tax is the right approach.”
What about introducing a tax on sugary food? Ashworth repeats a previous announcement that he would expand the current sugar tax – which applies to fizzy drinks – to cover milkshakes, but stresses that “it’s not our policy to put tax on food”.
Asked about minimum alcohol unit pricing, he is a bit more forthcoming. “I think it’s a debate we need to have,” he says. “We need to look at the evidence from Scotland, where it has been introduced already. I think it was very disappointing that the secretary of state completely ruled it out in a very hard way recently. I mean, the secretary of state keeps banging on about prevention and telling everybody that prevention is better than cure as if nobody had ever thought of that before. And yet he’s not prepared to make any of the big decisions that would actually improve prevention in this country.”
In a few months’ time, Ashworth will be promoting his own healthy lifestyle when he takes part in the London Marathon for the third time. “The last few times I ran the marathon I said I’d never do it again, which just shows you can’t believe a word a politician says,” he jokes.
In 2018, the Labour MP raised a healthy £8,683.70 for the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. Among his sponsors were then health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who generously chucked in £100. According to Ashworth, this means the pressure is now on Matt Hancock. “If I’m still the shadow secretary of state I’ll be expecting the current secretary of state to sponsor me for even more than Jeremy Hunt did,” he says audaciously.
Having spent the day with the shadow health secretary, the news that he will be raising money for the National Association for Children of Alcoholics for the third year in a row does not come as an enormous shock. The more he speaks about the subject, the more he confirms that it is a very personal crusade for him.
“As you know, alcohol and alcoholism is something I care about hugely,” he says. “I’ve spoken out about it and how it affected me. I’ve spoken about my dad dying from drink. I spoke about how he couldn’t even come to my wedding because of his alcoholism, because he felt that he would somehow embarrass me. So this is a personal mission of mine. If I become the health secretary – and who knows what might happen in the coming weeks and months – this will be a personal focus and a priority.”
When Ashworth gets to meet a former patient of Poole hospital’s alcohol care team, it’s clear just how much it all resonates with him on a personal level. A genial and articulate man, John McBride ended up drinking two bottles of whisky a day after his parents died, his kids grew up and he took early retirement from his job as a university nursing teacher. He acknowledges that the alcohol care team saved him and he now works for the service, helping people who used to be in the same position as him. “You’ve literally turned your life around”, says Ashworth, his expression conveying admiration and awe.
A few minutes later the shadow health secretary is wiping a tear from his eyes. “My dad was drinking a bottle of whisky a day at the end. He didn’t get any help at all,” he says quietly. “I’ve got a chance to do something about it.”