Saturday 20 January 2018

Hugh Pym and the BBC's NHS coverage

For anyone who's interested, here's a transcript of the main part of this week's Newswatch

Hugh Pym

Samira Ahmed: Now, not for the first time, we are in the middle of a winter of difficulties and challenges for the National Health Service. BBC News has been reporting them with considerable attention. 
BBC NewsreaderTonight at 6:00pm, an apology from Theresa May after new figures reveal pressure on the NHS this winter. From ambulance transfer delays, unprecedented calls to the helpline and operations postponed. BBC Newsreader: A stark claim by doctors: Winter pressures have left patients dying prematurely in hospital corridors. They say safety in A&E units in England and Wales has been compromised at a sometimes intolerable level. 
Doctor: There is a clear emergency and what a number of other observers have clearly described as a crisis. 
BBC Newsreader: One in ten nurses is leaving the NHS in England every year, as the gap between those leaving and joining the profession widens. BBC Newsreader: Hospital consultants in Wales say patient safety is being compromised and that the NHS and social care are chronically under resourced. 
Consultant: We've got patients that are in the department where we don't have space to see them and then we are coming back the next day and some of the patients are still here. It's getting worse every winter, but this is the worst we have seen it. 
Samira Ahmed: Viewer Mike Hill reacted to the coverage he'd seen by writing, "Every year the BBC in January encourages public hysteria by sensationalist reporting - an open door is offered to every medical group, trade union, charity and politician with the same crisis message." And Robert Glassborow put it like this: "I am tired of hearing the scurrilous comments on BBC News programmes running down the NHS, and the annual pressures they are coping with admirably. The nursing staff are demoralised as a result". Meanwhile, Brian Megson declared himself a fan of BBC News, but he echoed those reservations. 
Brian: What I don't enjoy is your constant commentary about the NHS. You start off in December and then you really let rip in January. Every day there's a report about how bad it is, people dying in corridors, not enough nurses, not enough doctors. There's always something wrong with the NHS every day for you guys and you really should stop it. It's a wonderful organisation, why can't you let it be? It's a very big, tough organisation to run for those who are running it and I wish he would stop this obsession and fixation with it. 
Samira Ahmed: Well, Hugh Pym, the health editor for BBC News is with me now. Thank you for coming on Newswatch. There is a sense that the 'NHS in crisis' story comes around each winter. Are you too negative in how you focus on it? 

Hugh Pym: Well, Samira, there's always a balance to be struck, we are very aware of that. The balance between recognising that the NHS does a fantastic job throughout the year and that it's a very popular and well-regarded institution, the staff work extremely hard, but also recognising that if it's under great pressure and staff are feeling the pressure, and that's often what we're being told, then we need to report that. We need to hold the government to account on the performance of the NHS and the management of the NHS in different parts of the UK. Now, this winter, it's been made abundantly clear to us by many people on the front line that the pressure is greater than they've known before, even worse than last year. Many of them think the NHS is underfunded. We've had stories from patients, as well, about very, very long waits in ambulances outside hospitals, and we have a duty to report that. 

Samira Ahmed: You've absolutely made the journalistic case for why this is news. It's about what's abnormal. But is there enough consideration of the cumulative effect of all the stories, that they might actually be hurting people's confidence, and undermining staff morale, which is what some viewers are concerned about? 

Hugh Pym: Well, a couple of the stories that we did, just to highlight, as we've seen just a few minutes ago, the letter from 68 leading A&E consultants, again, on the front line of the NHS, writing to the Prime Minister, saying they have very serious safety concerns, that people could be dying prematurely because of waits in corridors - that letter echoed by consultants in Wales, writing to the First Minister - If that's how they feel in the NHS, then I think we have to report that. And, when it went out on social media, there were a lot of tweets from people in different parts of the NHS, welcoming the fact that senior clinicians were speaking out like that. So, in terms of the negative impact, it's hard to tell with morale, but we have done positive stories about the role of nurses, for example, a whole day of coverage on the very valuable role they play, and also positive stories about how some hospitals, in the face of great pressure, are coping and are having to devise ways of streaming people through A&E. I highlighted a scheme in Ipswich. We've looked at the performance of Luton's A&E, hitting all the targets. A video on our website on that. So I think we do always try to highlight the steps which have been taken to mitigate this pressure. 

Samira Ahmed: It is interesting you mentioned there the day focused on nursing, because it was Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, tweeted that while the BBC's focus was good, he accused the BBC of underplaying the increase in nurse training places. Does he have a point? 

Hugh Pym: Well, we were highlighting the story, which was that last year, the year to September 2017, more nurses had left the NHS than joined it in England. And there was a 3,000 gap, and that hadn't been seen at all in recent years. There was a small gap in the previous year, but it had been positive a few years before that, highlighting the real recruitment and retention challenges the NHS has. Now, the Government's line is, new training places have been set up for a future flow of nurses and we did report that. But they're, in a way, different stories. Yes, planning for the future is one thing, which the Government is trying to do. What was the situation last year? That was illustrated by the facts we quoted from NHS Digital. 

Samira Ahmed: Well, it is very clear from our conversation so far that there is a real political issue in how the NHS is being reported, given the Government and the Opposition say very different things about the funding going into the NHS, and how it is being spent. How much of a challenge is that for you reporting it? 

Hugh Pym: It's a great challenge, because the flow of funding is very complicated. Yes, the Government can say that they've put more money into the NHS, and others can say, including Labour, that it's not enough, and that's of course, in some sense, is a value judgment, but there's an increasing view across different parts of the NHS and royal colleges, trade unions and think tanks, saying that, in England and also the UK, spending is lagging behind what it might be as a share of national income. So getting that balance right and also highlighting the need for the NHS to be efficient, and how it can save money, is always quite a difficult thing to get right. But there is now an increasing debate about the need for a cross-party view on this, involving everyone across society -How do they want the NHS to be funded and social care? Where's the money going to come from, does it need more tax?- on this, of course, the 70th year of the NHS. 

Samira Ahmed: What's interesting is we started off talking about viewers' concern that the BBC is being too negative. But it has also been striking that the BBC's logo for this story is 'NHS Winter', whereas in the past it has been 'NHS Crisis' which the BBC also got criticised for. Some might say, is the BBC being too shy of being as hard as it needs to be on this story? 

Hugh Pym: Well, we've been very careful in our reporting not to use the word 'crisis', and not to brand it as 'a crisis'. It's for others to make that assertion. Many are. Many clinicians as well as politicians are saying it is an NHS crisis. I think the best we can do is state the facts, state what is really going on in hospitals, GPs' surgeries, community health, mental health, right around the UK, state it as it is, make the debate about funding as clear as possible and then leave others to judge how serious it is. But I think no-one can be in any doubt, we have laid out there for viewers and listeners that there is a very serious state of affairs in some parts of the NHS, currently in January, with flu being a major problem. But we need to judge things in the months ahead as to where things go from here. 

Samira Ahmed: Hugh Pym, thank you so much. 

1 comment:

  1. I personally think that A&E is in permanent crisis. The idea that it is thought acceptable for you to have to wait 4 hours before seeing a doctor strikes me as absurd, dangerous and not acceptable. I think the NHS gets it priorities wrong because consultant surgeons dominate its decision making. GP appointments and A&E access (ambulance service included) should be the top priorities.


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