Robert Winston

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), January 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

Robert Winston


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


He maybe held in awe at No 10, but God's imitator thinks new Labour has made a hash of the health service

The nation wheezes. The NHS creaks. How, one wonders, will the health service cope with the forthcoming genetic revolution when it can barely handle flu? I expect Lord ins on to cite the current Lemsip-and-Kleenex crisis as the harbinger of a dawning catastrophe in his own field, but he seems almost strangely distracted from the future of gene science.

If playing Rory Bremner to the Almighty suggests flimsiness, then it should not. Despite criticism -- and his success and bullishness have attracted plenty -- Winston is regarded with an awe that is said to extend even unto 10 Downing Street. It seems strange therefore that Winston, a staunch believer in new Labour, and the chair of the Lords' select committee on science and technology, should be so damning of the government's record on health.

Robert Winston is the country's leading fertility expert and a pioneer of IVF treatment and pre-implantation techniques to screen out inherited disease. Ennobled by Tony Blair and almost sanctified by the BBC, he achieved star status in his television series, The Human Body, in which the screen death of an elderly man contrived the remarkable feat of making snuff TV respectable. Although scornful of right-wing charges of assumed divinity, Winston has modestly conceded to being "God's imitator".

We start on his own province and the patchy, postcode provision of fertility treatment. "There's an inevitable disappointment that, when we were in opposition, the Labour Party was making really encouraging noises about improving reproductive medicine. The truth is that our services are much the worst in Europe. There are fewer IVF treatment cycles under this government than there were under the Tories.

"That is a pretty uncomfortable feeling for someone who takes the Labour whip in the Lords, who has tried to run an NHS service for 20 years, who has redistributed all private income through the unit [his Hammersmith Hospital centre]. One could not be anything but unhappy about that." Winston's misery does not end there. In his view, Blair's health reforms have eroded specialist care, failed to eradicate the Conservative internal market and offered a cash provision that is "not as good as Poland's".

"We still have an internal market, but instead of commissioning by local health authorities, we have primary care groups. I think we've been quite deceitful about it. We haven't told the truth, and I'm afraid there will come a time when it will be impossible to disguise the inequality of the health service from the general population. We gave categorical promises that we would abolish the internal market. We have not done that. Our reorganisation of the health service was... very bad. We have made medical care deeply unsatisfactory for a lot of people. We've always had this right but monolithic view that there should be equality throughout the nation at the point of delivery. All very good stuff, but it isn't working."

His prescription is root-and-branch reform. "It's not good enough to say we're going to spend [pounds]20 billion over 35 years or whatever. It's a question of changing the whole way the package is funded. Do we want a health service that is steadily going to deteriorate and be more and more rationed and will be inferior on vital areas such as heart disease and cancer compared to our less well-off neighbours? That is where we are going at the moment. If we don't want that, then we pay more tax or have an insurance system. I see no alternative. There is a lot wrong with the health service, and no one is prepared to say so. I shouldn't really be saying these things to you now."

Does he consider healthcare worse than under the Tories? "It's just gradually deteriorating because we blame everything on the previous government." And why has Blair so signally failed to address the crisis? …

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