In a bid to boost his drastically plummeting popularity rates, Gordon Brown is trying to polish his record on the 60th anniversary of Britain's National Health Service (NHS) Saturday. But experts seem to believe that his plans could backfire as both he and the NHS struggle to get off the sick list.
This week, Brown's struggling government published a major review of the NHS -- set up after World War II to provide free treatment for all -- by health minister and top surgeon Lord Ara Darzi.
AdvertisementThe giant provider, the world's fourth-largest employer with a budget of nearly 100 billion pounds a year (125 billion euros, 199 billion dollars) in England alone, is battling an ageing population, rising treatment costs and more informed patients questioning their care.
But the NHS, which provides mostly free medical care to all Britons and is funded from general taxation, is still highly regarded.
Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's finance minister Nigel Lawson once said it is "the closest thing the English have to a religion".
A Daily Telegraph/You Gov poll this week found 58 percent of Britons had used it in the last three months and 81 percent were satisfied with their treatment.
Brown has led praise for the system, invoking personal experience -- his sight was saved by NHS surgeons after a rugby accident when he was 16 -- and saying he was "proud" it was set up by a Labour government.
The NHS is "a unique and very British expression of an ideal -- that healthcare is not a privilege to be purchased but a moral right secured for all," he wrote in introduction to the Darzi review.
While major investment under his Labour Party since 1997 has tackled some of the waiting lists that used to plague it, the quality of treatment -- particularly hospital hygiene and mixed-sex wards -- still rankles with some patients.
It is quality which the Darzi review focuses on, most strikingly by saying that some hospital funding -- thought to be around three percent -- should depend on patients' satisfaction with their treatment.
"Ten years ago, the UK was a long way behind most European countries," Chris Ham, health services management professor at Birmingham University, told the Financial Times.
"My judgement now would be that the system is out of intensive care. But it remains in the middle of a long period of rehabilitation."
The Darzi review was broadly welcomed by experts but some question how long the NHS can afford to keep providing care on the current model, especially since Britain, like most Western countries, has an ageing population.
"The economic rationale for changing the NHS has kind of come to the fore," Nick Goodwin, senior policy fellow at independent health foundation the King's Fund, told AFP.
"The cost of keeping people in the system as it currently is, which is more institutionalised, becomes completely unaffordable."
Some believe the anniversary could signal Brown's fightback from plunging poll ratings as he bids to make Labour contenders against the centre-right Conservatives at the next general election, within the next two years.
"(Some ministers) say voters are still closest to Labour's core values, epitomised by the NHS, of opportunity for all and a fair society," the Independent's political editor Andrew Grice wrote last week.
"They think David Cameron has not yet convinced the public his new model Tory party really believes in such values, even if he espouses them."
But it may not be as simple as that.
Although the Conservatives have historically been suspicious of the NHS -- Thatcher even considered abolishing it in the 1980s -- their current, youthful leader Cameron embraces it.
That, combined with Brown's current unpopularity, means that more people now trust the Conservatives than Labour with the NHS's future -- 31 percent to 23 percent, according to the Telegraph poll.
Doctor Steven Fielding, director of Nottingham University's Centre for British Politics, said the state of the NHS was "central" to Brown's hopes of winning the next election.
The premier could try and woo voters back by arguing that the NHS embodies Labour, not Conservative values, he told AFP.
"But in the last few years, David Cameron has been trying to decontaminate the Conservative Party to prevent that very kind of argument having legs and I don't think it will work," he added.