Labour is calling on Matt Hancock to hand back donations totalling £32,000 which he received from the chair of a thinktank which today published a report saying there was “nothing special” in the NHS’s performance in the coronavirus pandemic.
The report by the Institute of Economic Affairs found that insurance-based health services elsewhere in the world had performed as well or better and concluded that there was “no rational basis for the adulation the NHS is currently receiving, and no reason to be ‘grateful’ for the fact that we have it”.
In a letter to Mr Hancock, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner described the comments as “disgraceful” and called on the health secretary to distance himself from them by condemning the report and returning the money he has received from IEA chair Neil Record.
The register of MPs’ interests shows that Mr Record made a series of donations to support Mr Hancock’s parliamentary work as a private individual, rather than as a representative of the IEA. But Ms Rayner said the health secretary must have been aware when accepting the money of what she said was the free-market thinktank’s “long-standing campaign to abolish our NHS and replace it with a privatised healthcare system”.
The report by IEA head of political economy Kristian Niemietz challenged what it described as a set of “viral myths” about the world’s response to coronavirus which were “almost certainly incorrect”.
These included “the idea that the NHS has been the star performer of the pandemic, and that we should be more grateful than ever for having it”.
Dr Niemietz said that international polling showed the NHS has a better rating for its response to Covid-19 than any other institution in the world, which he ascribed to a “rally-round-the-NHS” effect of the crisis.
But he said that the UK had one of the highest levels of excess deaths in the developed world, and that analysis of countries which performed better showed no particular pattern in terms of the type of healthcare provision system they have.
“Conventional wisdom holds that the NHS has emerged as the star performer of the pandemic” he wrote. “Which it has, but only in the way in which for proud parents watching a school performance, their own child will always stand out as the ‘star performer’, even if nobody else sees it that way.”
And he added: “While we cannot blame the NHS for policy failures in areas completely unrelated to healthcare, neither can we claim that the UK’s high excess death rate had nothing to do with healthcare.
“What is safe to say is that there is no rational basis for the adulation the NHS is currently receiving, and no reason to be ‘grateful’ for the fact that we have it.”
If Britain used a Taiwan-style public health insurance or German-style social health insurance system, there was “no guarantee that this would have served the UK better during the pandemic, but there is certainly no reason to believe that it would have done any worse”, the report concluded.
“There is nothing special about the NHS, neither during this pandemic, nor at any other time.”
In her letter to Mr Hancock, Ms Rayner said: “This disgraceful attack on our NHS comes in the middle of a deadly global pandemic after our NHS staff have worked round the clock for almost a year to tackle this dreadful virus, save lives and keep us all safe.”
She said: “As health secretary, it is your job to protect and defend our country’s greatest institution – our National Health Service – and stand up for our NHS staff who have sacrificed so much throughout this pandemic to save lives and keep us safe.
“If you are committed to the protection of our NHS you must take action immediately to assure NHS staff and the British people that you don’t share the views of your donors at the Institute of Economic Affairs that we should not be grateful for the NHS or thank the NHS and its staff for their work during this pandemic.”
There was no immediate response from Mr Hancock’s office to a request from The Independent for comment on Ms Rayner’s letter.
But Boris Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton said: “I don’t think the government is in the business of linking money and the conclusions of reports. It is for thinktanks to conclude whatever they deem a right and accurate reflection of the work they’ve done.”
Ms Stratton said she had not read the IEA report, but pointed out that Mr Johnson had repeatedly made clear his appreciation of the work done by the NHS.
“He clapped for the NHS and he has spoken on many occasions about the sterling work it has done,” she said.
“Let’s not forget that he himself from Covid and was treated in hospital when he was incredibly unwell and remains grateful to the people who nursed him then.”