Tuesday, January 02, 2007

NHS turbulence is set to continue

So, was it the best year ever? The Royal College of Nursing certainly didn't agree with Patricia Hewitt's declaration in April. They booed and jeered at the health secretary when she addressed the nurses four days later. The stormy encounter in Bournemouth came at a time of furious debate about NHS deficits and job cuts. Those arguments resurfaced in the autumn, and will rage again in 2007 as NHS bosses face renewed pressure to balance their books. The final figure for the 2006 deficit in England was 547 million pounds.

Ministers point out it represents a tiny share of the overall budget, which has been boosted by record investment over the past eight years. And they are hopping mad about claims that the NHS is losing 20,000 posts - they say this is alarmist because the real number of people who have actually been laid off is close to 900. But critics say that won't be of any comfort to people who've been made redundant, or to newly trained staff seeking work in the NHS. Next year local demonstrations will keep erupting in areas where there are threats to existing services because of reorganisation.

In a recent appearance before a committee of MPs, Patricia Hewitt remained jaunty about her "best year ever" claim - pointing out that patient care in important areas like cancer has been transformed, with reduced waiting lists. She acknowledged the financial pain that will mean some local deficits persisting - but she said she would take personal responsibility on the NHS as a whole breaking even in 2007. There certainly have been improvements to the health service recently - as one would expect, with the extra billions of pounds that have been pumped in.

But sometimes it is the more basic aspects of care that can prove a stumbling block. Look at the recent furore over the long-running problem of mixed-sex wards, which Patricia Hewitt has told health bosses to investigate.

And then there's that perennial NHS problem - how do you meet ever-higher expectations and provide impressive medical technology without breaking the bank? The theory is you set up an independent body called NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) to gather the evidence and assess drugs for their cost-effectiveness. This doesn't make bitter arguments go away though.

2006 has brought good news for women who are now eligible for the breast cancer drug Herceptin in the early stages of the disease. But the year will be remembered less favourably by campaigners for people with Alzheimer's Disease, as drugs which were previously prescribed for the condition are now restricted. That row will continue next year, as three drug companies mount a legal challenge, claiming that the decision-making was unfair.

Although NICE will also be investigated by the parliamentary health select committee, it is undaunted. NICE has strong political backing and is an increasingly confident organisation, with a role which has expanded to include public health.

By the end of 2008, patients have been promised they won't have to wait any longer than 18 weeks, between seeing their GP and having an operation. It's a tough target - so expect to see the NHS pulling out a lot of stops to try to get there over the next few years.


Britain: Row over ethnic minority only swimming sessions for women and children

Discrimination and segregation is good if the government does it but bad if YOU do it! One council seems determined to generate votes for the British National Party

A council has been fiercely criticised for holding ethnic-minority only swimming sessions. Wolverhampton City Council employs special life-guards and instructors for the sessions, which are open to the city's black and Asian residents only. It claims the weekly periods are for women and children with "religious or cultural issues which would otherwise prevent them from taking part."

But furious pool-users say they amount to racial segregation and claim they are being prevented from using the pool - simply because they may be white. The hour-long, Thursday evening sessions at Wolverhampton's Central Baths replace an aqua-aerobics session that was previously open to all.

They are financially supported by Kellogg's Swim Active programme, which has funded the installation of special blinds around the pool, designed to protect swimmers' privacy. The special sessions started in November and run every Thursday evening. It is not known exactly how many people take part.

Yesterday, swimmer Leslie Waugh, from Walsall, said: "It's wrong. The council bangs on about integration but then does something like this. The women even have their own instructor and lifeguard brought in for the sessions and the regular workers have to leave." Local councillor Malcolm Gwinnett said: "It's one thing to have an all-women session, that's fine. But it should be all women of whatever religion, not just one religion, which leaves everyone else out in the cold."

Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell said: "This seems to be exactly the sort of thing that creates division and resentment rather than bringing people together. "I'd like to know what the logic behind this is. It sounds like a pretty bad idea to me and just the sort of thing that councils should not be doing."

A Wolverhampton City Council spokesman said complaints about the scheme had been received by reception staff at the baths. She said: "It is one of the most ambitious schemes in the country and aims to tackle childhood obesity, engage the city's ethnic minority communities and work with children who fear water. "An initial trial of eight weeks is providing an opportunity for women and children from ethnic minorities, who may not otherwise participate for cultural and religious reasons."

The Wolverhampton ethnic-minority swim sessions come after leisure centre in Croydon, South London, opened its pool to Muslims only for two hours every week. Thornton Heath Leisure Centre insist that men wear shorts which hide the navel and extend below the knee. Women wear a swimming costume that covers their body from the neck down to the ankle. There are separate sessions for men and women. In common with the Wolverhampton plan, the sessions were condemned by local people for encouraging segregation.


British ad ban takes big bite out of Burger King

Burger King, the world's second largest fast-food chain, estimates that the ban on children's advertising could cost it up to 100 million pounds in lost UK sales next year. The prediction came as the company's new management in the UK vowed to fight regulatory interference and a declining fast-food market. Giorgio Minardi, the company's head of north west Europe, in his first UK interview, said: "Advertising is a key part of our drive to get kids and families into our restaurants. It will have a major impact on our top line."

His comments come less than a week after Burger King aired its last advert aimed at children - an advert promoting penguin toys based on the hit animated film Happy Feet.

Mr Minardi, a former senior McDonald's executive, joined its arch rival earlier this year and is leading an almost entirely new team in the UK, vowing to turn around the struggling fast-food chain. "There is life yet in the burger," he said. Like McDonald's, Burger King has suffered from the relentless competition on the high street and the change in consumers' habits. One of his first decisions was to end adverts aimed at children, before regulators enforced any ban, outmanoeuvring many of his competitors.

He and his new head of marketing David Kisilevsky, have also, controversially, heavily promoted its calorific Double Whopper burgers. Mr Kisilevsky said: "People are starting to get a little bit fed up with the nanny state intrusion in our lives. It was important for Burger King to come out in a light-hearted way and say there is nothing wrong to partake in your love of a great burger."

Burger King spends about 10m a year on advertising, with traditionally a third of that geared towards children. Mr Minardi said that once the children's adverts stop airing the turnover will be hit "without doubt by approximately 10 to 15pc."

The company, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, does not split out sales from individual countries but market research firm Euromonitor estimates that Burger King in the UK generated sales of 693m in 2004. Though sales are forecast to have fallen since then, the impact on sales could therefore be 100m in a worst-case scenario. This is a far higher figure than most in the industry are prepared to predict. Ofcom estimates that the lost advertising revenue to broadcasters will be 39m when the ban comes into force next year. However, the regulator never calculated the possible lost revenue to the UK fast-food industry, reckoned to be worth 13bn in annual sales.

Mr Kisilevsky said he was confident the hit could be partly offset: "We are redeploying some of our advertising spend to focus that on to families." Mr Minardi confirmed that the company would continue to sell toys in its restaurants. "There's nothing wrong with our kids meals, and the toys are part of that experience. We're not going to take them out. What we're not going to do is target kids directly." He added that, after years of decline, sales in the UK were now in positive territory thanks to the launch of the Aberdeen Angus beef burger, which has been a hit with its diners


Mary, 'Palestinian refugee'

When it comes to the politicization of the Christmas story, I thought I had seen it all. But the London Independent's shameless mischaracterization of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as "a Palestinian refugee" takes the proverbial cake. The story by Johann Hari published Dec. 23 begins: "In two days, a third of humanity will gather to celebrate the birth pains of a Palestinian refugee in Bethlehem - but two millennia later, another mother in another glorified stable in this rubble-strewn, locked down town is trying not to howl."

It goes on to describe a 5-year-old tale of an Arab woman who claims she was stopped from entering Israel to deliver her twins and forced to go 20 minutes in another direction to an Arab hospital.

It's amazing. It's bizarre. It's breathtaking at what passes for Western journalism in the Middle East today. First of all, was Mary "a Palestinian refugee"? No, Mary was a Jew, living in the occupied territory of Israel. She wasn't trying to get to a Roman hospital to have her child. She was traveling with her husband from her home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, where the Roman authorities decreed those from the House of David would pay their taxes.

Who are these anti-Israel activists the Western press dispatches to cover the Middle East? Where do they come from? Where are they trained? Where are they educated? How is it possible that such drivel is actually published? What is it exactly that the so-called Palestinians want? Do they want their own homeland or not? It seems to me they've got it. But now they want to be able to travel into Israel for medical care? What's wrong with their own hospitals? Why is it that they don't decide to buy more medicine and fewer guns?

Don't get me wrong. I don't blame "the modern-day Mary" in this fable for wanting first-class medical care in Israel. And had Bethlehem remained under Israeli governance, that's exactly what the people of Bethlehem would have received. But the so-called Palestinians demanded their own country. Unfortunately for them, that means Palestinian hospitals, too.

Is that context not important for people unfamiliar with the region to understand? Is it not important for reporters covering the region to understand? Let's call this what it is: Deliberate deception. It is the worst form of propaganda. In another time, we labeled it agit-prop. What is the purpose? Is it to stir up more hate and violence?

More here

Another way Britain gets people out of their evil cars: "Train fares will rise above the rate of inflation tomorrow for the fourth consecutive year, with passengers on longdistance services facing the highest increases. Bus passengers in London will find fares rising by more than double the rate of inflation, with the single cash fare up 33 per cent to œ2. Passenger groups said that the increases would encourage people to abandon public transport. Rail fares that are set by the Government, including season tickets and some off-peak tickets, will rise by 4.3 per cent. But the 60 per cent of fares set by private operators will rise by up to 11 per cent."

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