By Rob Darracott
I was struggling for inspiration this month when I caught health secretary Matt Hancock on breakfast TV. It got me thinking about whether ‘just making stuff up’ is a tactic pharmacy could use after the election.
The health secretary was being grilled by Charlie Stayt on BBC Breakfast about the Conservative manifesto commitment to increase the number of NHS nurses by 50,000. As Mr Stayt pointed out, this figure seems to includes 18,000 or so nurses who, it is said, are on the point of jacking it in, ready to leave an NHS which, let’s not forget, has been operating under Conservative health secretaries including Mr Hancock since 2010.
Mr Hancock (other politicians making similarly outlandish claims are available) was keen to point out that the commitment was not for 50,000 “new” nurses, but 50,000 “more” nurses. He suggested that those currently heading towards the exit would not be allowed to leave, or words to that effect. I thought places like Rampton were the only hospitals with keys on the inside, but it does beg the question I posed upfront.
Needless to say, I am not going to advocate that pharmacy adopts the sophistry of politicians as the best way to get ahead. I’m sure Mr Hancock believes it is possible to employ 50,000 more nurses, and he could be right, especially if he intends relabelling portering staff as location reassignment nurses. But being loose with language, promising things that are highly improbable, lights the way to a very dark place.
I've recently been speaking to the community pharmacy negotiators in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales show for an upcoming piece, and they are showing that it is possible to make things happen when there is agreement on what can be done. What those conversations tell me, time and again, is that effort expended on policy development, working up the ideas that can make a difference to patients, and a properly developed (and realistic) implementation plan, can pay dividends. You can’t run before you can walk.
In Scotland and Wales, government is said to be very supportive of the direction of travel, and that helps, but that support is hard won on the basis of consistent and logical development of the case, often the local case, for change. In Northern Ireland, as Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland have shown, it is even possible to keep the show on the road when the devolved government has been missing for more than two years, if the direction of travel has been set. A decade of consistency on behalf of the negotiating body has created the opportunity for a roadmap, even an outline one, to be agreed. In all cases, the funding challenges are acute.
Regardless of who wins on December 12, the prominence of the ‘future of the NHS’ as the key non-Brexit item in the general election campaign suggests that robust policy development and argument will be needed more than ever, when faced by politicians who’ve racked up the promises and pledges, costed and uncosted, and who are expected to deliver, as the current incumbent of Number 10’s phrase has it, on the ‘people’s priorities’.
Community pharmacy is trying to keep afloat in the real world. Across the UK, it is exploring different ways of delivering better services and achieving better outcomes for patients. The data is starting to flow; against the hyperbole of politicians, those are the numbers that should count for so much more.