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Britons rally to defend their healthcare system, say U.S. attacks aren't cricket

It's one thing for the British to criticize their National Health Service, quite another for Yanks to malign it. A backlash against U.S. criticism has erupted in the blogosphere, on Twitter.

August 15, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Castigating their public healthcare system may be a national pastime for the British, but it's not one they care to share with Americans, thank you very much.

In fact, Britain's oft-maligned National Health Service on Friday was on the receiving end of an outpouring of love and affection it hasn't felt in years, owing to a growing backlash against what many here see as lies and calumnies being spread about the NHS by conservative critics of President Obama's plan for healthcare changes in the United States.

Those critics have branded the NHS as "evil" and "Orwellian," an example of socialized medicine to be avoided at all costs. They blast the system, which offers free healthcare to all, as an expensive failure that denies new drugs to cancer victims, blocks the elderly from receiving certain kinds of treatment and generally puts a low value on human life.

But such allegations have set the blood boiling in many Britons, who this week hit back in the blogosphere, in print and over the airwaves to defend one of their country's most jealously guarded institutions from an unexpected attack from across the pond.

Ordinary people have piped up with stories of excellent care given by committed doctors and nurses.

A Twitter campaign to rally support for the NHS has attracted so many thousands of messages that the new "welovetheNHS" site crashed this week. Among the contributors: Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who felt moved to "tweet" his encouragement while vacationing in Scotland.

The NHS "often makes the difference between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death," Brown wrote, adding: "Thanks for always being there."

The groundswell of reaction against U.S. criticism of the NHS has offered a rare show of national unity in a country whose people are outraged and puzzled over why their system, along with Canada's, has been cast as the boogeyman in the U.S. healthcare debate.

Not that the British believe their system to be perfect. Before the pendulum swung the other way this week, complaints about waiting lists for hip replacements, the risk of infection by "superbugs" in public hospitals and poor bedside manners of healthcare personnel were the norm.

But such grumblings were considered a domestic affair. A smear campaign in another country, based on misinformation and falsehoods, is simply not cricket, the British say.

"We're OK to have a fair analysis of the NHS, but let's have it fair," Andy Burnham, Britain's health secretary, told the BBC on Friday.

The left-leaning Guardian newspaper devoted an entire page to debunking some of the more scandalous accusations circulating in the U.S., including Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley's claim that fellow Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) wouldn't receive treatment in Britain for his brain tumor because of his age.

The right-wing tabloid the Sun, meanwhile, ran a scathing commentary headlined "Why Yanks Must Stop Bashing the NHS."

Severely disabled scientist Stephen Hawking declared, "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," pointedly rebutting claims by Los Angeles-based Investor's Business Daily that he "wouldn't have a chance" of surviving here in his homeland because of treatment-rationing.

The passion roused by the controversy is further testament to how strongly people here feel about the NHS, regarded as perhaps the greatest triumph of Britain's welfare state since its launch in 1948, when the country was struggling mightily to keep body and soul together in the aftermath of World War II.

The service now treats 1 million patients every 36 hours, employs 1.5 million people and operates with a budget of about $169 billion, according to official statistics.

Accusations of inefficiency and waste have dogged the NHS for years, leading a growing number of Britons to buy private insurance as a substitute or fallback.

But so unassailable a place does the NHS occupy in the national imagination that Britain's political parties dare speak only of revising and strengthening the system; any talk of abolishing it is political suicide.

Both Brown, the head of the ruling Labor Party, and David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative opposition, have given moving accounts of how they have benefited personally from the NHS. Doctors saved the sight in one of Brown's eyes after a rugby injury when he was as a teenager. Cameron praised the health service for doing "their utmost" in caring for his 6-year-old son Ivan, who was afflicted with a severe form of cerebral palsy and died in February.

"One of the wonderful things about living in this country is that the moment you're injured or fall ill -- no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you've got -- you know that the NHS will look after you," Cameron said in a statement.

On Friday, Cameron swiftly disowned comments by a member of his party, Daniel Hannan, who serves in the European Parliament and appeared on Fox News attacking the NHS, saying he "wouldn't wish" it on anyone.

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