Who’s mess?

AS READERS OF this magazine well know, criticising the UK’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI) programme has become de rigueur among certain political factions in the UK. So it’s unsurprising that health secretary Andrew Lansley, a Conservative, thought little of it when he decided to share the following observation with the press:

“The truth is that some hospitals have been landed with PFI deals they simply cannot afford. Like the economy, Labour [the previous governing party] has brought some parts of the NHS to the brink of financial collapse.”

In an emailed statement, the Department of Health highlighted 22 National Healthcare Service (NHS) trusts, running a total of 60 healthcare units, which are allegedly incurring budgetary problems as a result of servicing their PFI debts.

The only problem is, the NHS, facing stringent cuts under the current government, begged to differ. The backlash started with John Appleby, head of NHS think-tank The King’s Fund, who cast doubt on Lansley’s comments on a BBC Radio 4 programme:

“I think it’s true that in certain cases certain hospitals will find that their PFI repayments are quite high now. On the other hand, there are some hospitals with PFI schemes which are perfectly healthy financially and there are others without PFI schemes who are in some difficulty, so it’s clearly not the sole problem.”

Criticism continued in the pages of the Independent newspaper, with one NHS executive bluntly saying: “To suggest that our financial problems are about PFI is nonsense. The problems that we face are about having to cut our budgets by 4 percent every year for the next four years”.

Or, as BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys put it when he interviewed Lansley following his comments: “Can I suggest that you may be playing a wee bit of politics here?”