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Editor's blog Thursday 9 July 2009: NHS Tayside's £3 million deal with Netcare - marring academic freedom, or talking Pollocks?

Not everybody likes Professor Allyson Pollock's analysis of the involvement of the commercial sector in the NHS. Professor Pollock is, to put it mildly, clearly no fan of a mixed economy or competition, and she would appear to fundamentally distrust and oppose the involvement of the commercial sector in the NHS under all circumstances.

She has been a consistent critic of the private finance initiative (PFI) since its inception, and in the last BMJ of April, published an economic analysis of the deal whereby NHS Tayside patients were "outsourced" to South African private firm Netcare-run Scottish Regional Treatment Centre for surgery. Professor Pollock's paper used figures from NHS National Services Scotland (the statistical body) which indicate that the centre may have been paid up to £3 million for patients who did not receive treatment.

Today, Melanie Newman in the Times Educational Supplementpublishes details of a controversial attack on Professor Pollock by Gerry Marr, COO of NHS Tayside.

Marr wrote to the BMJ in June, replying to the paper; and Pollock responded in kind.

Marr's tactics, in now writing to the University of Edinburgh where Professor Pollock is employed, seem grossly disproportionate. He has not released any data to contradict her research. Although he complained in the BMJ that she has not tried to understand the contract, he has offered no response to her further queries.

Crucially, he has not denied that £3 million of public money has been paid under the contact for operations that have not been done.

His complaint is that one of her letters requesting data was written on the University's letter-headed paper, and is querying the University as to whether she was requesting data as an individual or on behalf of the university.

This looks like nothing other than a blatant attempt at intimidation. It is also a grossly disproportionate response to an academic asking questions about whether public money is being well-spent.

It is likewise ignorant of the fact that Professor Pollock is entitled, whether as an individual or as an academic, to make Freedom Of Information requests. It is likely that requested data can be declined on 'commercial in confidence' grounds, although it is now being proposed that this exemption will be ended for private companies using public money.

Hurrah for Edinburgh
It is therefore a delight to see that the University of Edinburgh have given Mr Marr short shrift, and backed Professor Pollock's academic freedom. According to the TES report, that stated that ""supports the right to academic freedom and to freedom of speech, and believes it is appropriate for academics to make contributions to public policy debate relating to their own areas of expertise".

Credit to the authorities in Edinburgh for, in effect, referring him to the response in Arkell vs. Pressdram.

Even if you do not share Professor Pollock's certainty that involving the private sector is always a bad thing, most sensible people should accept that the Voltaire defence - "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" (attributed to but not written by the French genius) is crucial to academic freedom.

It is also a vital defence against the contrasting dogmatic position: that private sector involvement in the NHS is automatically a good thing that produces better results at lower cost. The National Audit Office has called the PFI value for money calculation "pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo where the financial modelling takes over from thinking"

For NHS Tayside, this is a PR own-goal of spectacular proportions. If the figures Pollock cites were wrong, they should publish the right ones. If the contract is defensible economically, they should publish it and defend it.