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Fact check: Did ‘austerity’ kill 120,000 people?

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Did stingy UK bureaucrats commit “economic murder” by slashing NHS funding? A clip of a self-described Communist accusing the government of killing 120,000 people has gone viral, but the facts do not bear out her contention.

Ash Sarkar, who scored a glowing profile in Teen Vogue after calling herself “literally a Communist,” made the comment on the BBC program Question Time:

Austerity was not just a bloodless balancing of the books it was paid for with people’s lives, 120,000 people. The reason why I’m so angry and the reason why I think that gentleman [a political activist who confronted Prime Minister Boris Johnson in an NHS hospital] yesterday was so angry is because those of us who rely on public services – whether it’s the NHS, whether it’s the education system, whether it’s child protection or whether it’s, you know, benefits – have had to endure suffering for a decade, while we’ve heard the same line repeated by Tory MPs about having to end the deficit and how tough choices there are to be made. You didn’t have to pay for those choices the way ordinary people did.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted the video clip, adding, “You can’t disagree with this.”

 

 

 

Yet fact-checkers can, and have, disagreed that the poor outcomes associated with the NHS result from its consuming too few government resources.

There are at least three problems with this assertion.

Problem #1: The report does not assert 120,000 deaths due to austerity

The estimated 120,000 death figure comes from a 2017 report published by University College London. “It is not an exaggeration to call it economic murder,” said contributor Lawrence King.

The report itself is more modest – and, as one British figure said, it has much to be modest about.

Researchers noticed that, if previous health trends had continued, 45,000 fewer people would have died from 2010 to 2014. They extrapolated this to 120,000 by 2017, since government figures were not yet available.

“Our findings likely capture association rather than causation,” its authors admit. “We were unable to analyse specific causes of death as outcomes because there were differences in how causes of death in 2001–2010 and 2010 onwards were coded.”

Ascribing these deaths “to health and social care spending is speculative,” said Dr. Martin Roland, professor emeritus of health research services at the University of Cambridge. Roland noted that reducing nursing staff impacts the number of deaths in care homes but not hospitals, yet the report does not break down NHS nursing cuts.

Another expert, Dr. Richard Fordham of the University of East Anglia, said the paper had a “plausible hypothesis” but “other explanations are available.”

Patients during this time frame may have suffered from “more end-stage, longer-term illnesses”; “succumbed to different or new diseases (e.g., MRSA, cirrhosis etc.); or had greater multiple morbidities (asthma plus diabetes plus cancer, etc.) than similar cohorts of the same age before them.”

An influenza epidemic swept at least five other European nations during this period, according to Adam Steventon, Director of Data Analytics at the Health Foundation.

Blaming the free market backfires on the study, because the “privatization of nursing homes took place largely in this period,” Fordham added. This should have freed up public funds that “could have been spent elsewhere in the social care system (possibly on other services for the elderly).”

“One should treat their conclusions with some caution,” he said.

FullFact and Channel 4 fact-checked the report and came to similar conclusions.

Problem #2: UK ‘austerity’ is overstated

Per capita medical spending slowed – but still increased – during this time. Government spending was higher under Conservative Theresa May than Labourite Tony Blair in total dollars, inflation-adjusted dollars, and percentage of GDP. “What austerity?” asked Liam Halligan in the Telegraph. “Austerity still remains more of a goal than an actual reality,” wrote Allister Heath at City AM.

Problem #3: The NHS has claimed tens of thousands of cancer patients’ lives

Sarkar’s statement also overlooks the opportunity cost of maintaining the UK’s NHS, which studies show has a lower survival rate of numerous diseases. “In the UK there may be up to 15,000 avoidable deaths from cancer every year in people over the age of 75 years,” The Lancet reported in July. “[B]etween 2003 and 2005, cancer mortality rates in the UK were 23% higher than in six western European countries among those aged 75–84 years and 31% higher than in the USA among people over the age of 85 years.” While cancer deaths dropped 16 percent in Western Europe, they fell only two percent in the UK.

The state-run NHS lags behind, not just nations without a single-payer system, but nations that have less hidebound national healthcare systems. “If the UK’s breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and bowel cancer patients were treated in the Netherlands rather than on the NHS, more than 9,000 lives would be saved every year,” wrote analyst Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs. “If they were treated in Germany, more than 12,000 lives would be saved, and if they were treated in Belgium, more than 14,000 lives would be saved.” If the UK had a system like Israel – which is far from a pure, free-market system – it would save 3,598 victims of breast cancer; 5,108 victims of prostate cancer; 6,465 victims of lung cancer; 5,838 victims of bowel cancer every year.

These reflect survival rates of cancer patients alone; they ignore deaths from other terminal illnesses.

John Calvin, healthcare, and prudence

In his Institutes, John Calvin wrote that God “Who has fixed the boundaries of our life, at the same time entrusted us with the care of it … Now our duty is clear, namely, since the Lord has committed to us the defense of our life – to defend it … since He supplies remedies [medicines], not to neglect them.”

He upbraided those who believe human action has no role to play in predetermination. “The providence of God does not interpose simply; but, by employing means, assumes, as it were, a visible form,” Calvin wrote.

The Christian has a duty to make the best use of the medicines and remedies available to the human race. A less statist and bureaucratic NHS, more open to the free market, would save lives – and perhaps make an ideal marriage of prudence and providence.

(Photo credit: Screenshot.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.

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