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Editor's blog Monday 20 July 2009: Rewriting history

Good morning from abroad. There is likely to be less frequent posting this week because I am on holiday, but one story in today's Guardian mea culpa piece by and with Damian McBride needs a bit of attention.

McBride states, "If you take the NHS, when Gordon took over as PM, hospitals were mired in debt, and as a result, there was huge unrest among doctors and nurses over their pay, operations being cancelled, waiting lists increasing, but 2 years later, the NHS is back in surplus, the 18-week target has been met, hospital infections are down, and public satisfaction ratings are the highest they've been for 20 years."

It's an interesting assertion, is this.

It is also largely, in civil service-speak, 'round objects'. (Cue the Yes Minister line, "who is Round and to what does he object?"). In layman's terms, it is balls.

Brown took over in June 2007. The most reliable figures then available (athough unaudited), Q4 of 2006-7, found the NHS posting a "net revenue surplus of £510 million. This compares with a net revenue deficit of £547 million in 2005-06 and £221 million in 2004-05. This surplus takes into account both the deduction made to income of £698 million to recover prior-year deficits and the allocation of the £450 million contingency fund".

As outlined in the 2006-7 Annual Report, the heavy lifting of returning the NHS to financial balance had been done. The NHS was in surplus by the time of Brown's arrival.

There was not "huge unrest" among doctors and nurses over the staged pay awards. There was discontent over staging of pay awards, and Hewitt's managerially correct but politically unwise assertions that the NHS was having its "best year ever" memorably and boo-inducingly failed to endear her to the RCN and UNISON conferences. But huge unrest equals industrial action, which was not seen - despite the unfolding cock-up of the Modernising Medical Careers / MTAS fiasco being then in full swing.

Good progress was being achieved in most areas towards the December 2008 deadline 18-week target. Public satisfaction with their experience of the NHS was already high in June 2007, although it has since increased further.

The only substantial point is that the reduction of HCAIs was mainly achieved after Brown's elevation to the top job. That much is true - and unsurprising, given that Brown visited  Kingston Hospital (which had successfully slashed its HCAI rates) on his second day in post to launch it as an intitiative.

It is not a surprise to find Mr McBride's attempt to rewrite history to be kinder to his patron than the facts indicate. But such claims should not be taken at face value. Sometimes, checking a few facts does not hurt.