FactCheck: Is Lansley misleading us over the NHS?

The claim

“This meeting deplores the government’s misleading and inaccurate talking down of health outcomes in the UK in order to justify its White Paper reforms and Health Bill in England.”

British Medical Association (BMA) Special Representative Meeting to debate NHS reforms in England, Motion 10, March 15, 2011

By Emma Thelwell

The background

Doctors charged the Government today with feeding the public “deliberate unashamed misinformation” in its bid to push through radical NHS reforms.

Almost 400 doctors gathered at the BMA’s first emergency meeting in almost 20 years to vote against the Health and Social Care Bill – and to vote on three separate motions of no confidence in Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.

Mr Lansley, who lost the support of his Coalition partners over the weekend at the Lib Dem conference, has insisted that patients are at the heart of the reforms.  He argues that the NHS needs reform on the basis that it lags behind Europe, specifically with poor death rates in cancer and heart disease.

But is the NHS really the sick man of Europe? FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

The whole of Europe “could do better” in the health care stakes, according to latest analysis from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

While no one’s been issued a clean bill of health, the OECD’s summary of the UK’s battle against cancer and heart disease isn’t all bad.

Take breast cancer. It’s the most common form of cancer among all women in all EU countries – accounting for 31 per cent of cancer incidence and 17 per cent of cancer deaths among women in 2008.

The UK screens more women for breast and cervical cancer than most other developed countries and in the OECD’s 2010 Health at a Glance, we ranked third for cervical cancer screening and fifth for mammography screening over the period 2000 to 2008.

Survival rates, however, are less healthy. For both cancers, the UK dips below the European average – the 5-year survival rate for cervical cancer during 2002-2007 was 59.4 per cent – versus an OECD average of 65.7 per cent; and for breast cancer the rate was 78.5 per cent, slightly lower than the OECD average of 81.2 per cent.

But, the OECD points out that survival rates for different types of cancer is improving in the UK.

And data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) rubber-stamps this; with latest figures showing that the UK survival rate for most of the 21 common cancers improved – for both men and women – over the period 2003-2007 compared with the period 2001-2006.

Furthermore, ONS stats show that the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer during 2003-2007 was 83.3 per cent. This was 1.3 per cent higher than for women diagnosed in 2001-2006

As for heart disease, the official Ministerial briefing for the Bill claimed that, despite matching the French for healthcare spending, our rate of death from heart disease is double theirs.

This claim was repudiated a few months ago by the Kings Fund’s chief economist John Appleby. He said the comparison was made over just one year of OECD figures, and with France – a country with the lowest death rate for “myocardial infarction” – or heart attacks – in Europe.

Mr Appleby pointed out: “Not only has the UK the largest fall in death rates from myocardial infarction between 1980 and 2006 of any European country, if trends over the past 30 years continue, it will have a lower death rate than France as soon as 2012.”


Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the GP representing Edgware and Hendon at today’s BMA meeting, tabled the first motion against Mr Lansley. Dr Nagpaul could not accept  what he called the Government’s “plain ignorance” on the NHS’s record.

“Did they really not know that heart disease mortality has fallen more sharply in the UK than any other European nation…Did they really not know that the UK leads Europe in the reduction of breast cancer mortality rates, and that lung cancer death rates in men is actually lower than those in France?,” he said.

The verdict

Since kicking off his case for the “liberation” of the NHS in July, Mr Lansley has repeatedly claimed that “compared to other countries” the NHS has achieved poor outcomes in some areas.

But as he stated himself, the notably poor performances are in areas such as diabetes and asthma – confirmed to FactCheck by the OECD.

The OECD does say that most other European countries achieve higher survival rates for different types of cancer.

Yet, it also acknowledges that our cancer survival rates have improved. Plus, the organisation also tipped its hat to the UK for having a lower number of hospital admissions for congestive heart failure and hypertension than the rest of Europe.

Dr Nagpaul accused the Government of being “so bereft of national pride” that it totally ignores such facts, as well as the findings of the Commonwealth Fund.

FactCheck however, won’t be falling foul to that charge – we’ve read the 2010 Health Policy survey by the US health think tank, which pits the UK against Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the US.

The UK scored highest on confidence in NHS treatment and second only to New Zealand on the quality of care from doctors – with 79 per cent of those questioned rating the care they’d received in the past 12 months from their doctor as very good or excellent.

The NHS isn’t a picture of health, but we’re hardly the worst in Europe. So why is Mr Lansley being such a hypochondriac?

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