For the most part, failed politicians should be allowed to limp miserably off into the shadows. Some are obviously personally dislikable – Gordon Brown, Peter Hain and Caroline Flint come to mind – but for the most part, the strongest emotion one can drum up when they fall is contempt.
Patricia Hewitt, on the other hand, should be pursued down Whitehall by an angry mob throwing things. We forgive incompetence to some extent and blame Blair who appointed her more than Hewitt herself that she was not up to the job. We accept that the NHS is an intractable problem. We might believe that her accent – like a 1950s charwoman who wears her mistresses’ cast-off clothes and adopts her manner of speaking as well – was beyond her control.
What cannot be forgiven is her attempts to deny the dire awfulness of the ship she captained. The picture of her as Comical Ali – “the best year so far for the NHS” – can be found here and a report and video of her being heckled and booed by health workers is here. What is more worrying – the thought that she genuinely felt that all was well as the NHS sacked 7,000 workers, or the feeling that she despised us so much that she thought we might believe her?
The gap between Patricia Hewitt’s public statements that all was well, and the reality as experienced by those who suffered under her, is illustrated by what she said about patients suffering from age-related macular degeneration or AMD. Macular degeneration afflicts the eyes. Unless treated quickly, sufferers can go blind very quickly, losing their independence and (as a direct result) becoming dependent on expensive care much earlier than would otherwise have happened.
Drugs exist to cure, or at least arrest AMD. They are called Avastin and Lucentis and they are not available to specialists who would use them, nor are they approved by most PCTs. The reason is that NICE (the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence) recommends that these drugs should only be made available to people who have a particularly aggressive form of the disease and who have already lost the sight of one eye. PCT’s (which have been refusing to give the drugs pending the NICE report) leaped at this as an excuse to refuse funding for the cure.
Quite apart from the moral issues, this (as the Royal College of Opthamologists says) is a false economy when one considers the cost of caring for those who go blind. The reason is easy to find – the medical care of people whose sight might be saved falls on the PCT. The cost of care of the blind falls on the victim or on local authorities. PCT pen-pushers save themselves a small cost and ignore the much larger burden which will fall on others
There is more on this here. My interest in this context is in what Patricia Hewitt said about it. She said that no patient should be refused the drugs because of the absence of NICE approval. She did absolutely nothing to see that this happened.
Instead she screwed health authorities ever tighter on their budgets. She also, at one point, was having sessions in life skills (a sort of therapy for the unconfident) at our expense – at a cost per hour, in fact, roughly equivalent to the cost of having a sight-saving drug.
As a political fixer in the 80s she was in her element amidst all the back-stabbing and double-dealing. At the DTI she was merely useless, standing by surprised, for example, as the remnants of the British motor industry went down the pan on her watch. At Health, she was responsible not just for budgetary failures, but for causing deep and widespread human misery and suffering.
So while the rest of Brown’s rejects can slink away unnoticed and forgotten, Patricia Hewitt remains firmly on the vilification agenda.