Political footballs

Nick Servini
Political editor, Wales

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Good news. The latest set of figures on cancer treatment in Wales has improved.

You could argue that's not very impartial of me. After all, from a political perspective these figures are more encouraging for Labour and less so for the opposition parties.

But how on earth can an improving set of cancer figures be anything other than good news if you live in Wales?

To be fair, I don't think there are any opposition parties out there keenly wishing for standards of care to deteriorate.

But this gets to the nub of something I hear a lot of, and that is how to take politics out of the NHS.

Making political capital out of life and death has to be handled delicately and I think many people have an undefined sense of when things go too far.

Offa's Dyke

This was a central part of Labour's response to David Cameron's comments last year about Offa's Dyke being the line between life and death.

The claim is a comment like that damages the NHS because staff morale takes a battering, and problems in recruitment get worse as the warnings spiral into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In other words, it makes it more difficult for Welsh hospitals to attract the best trainee doctors and nurses.

The counter argument from the likes of the Conservative Health Secretary at Westminster, Jeremy Hunt, is that it's not about politics but about transparency which he claims is the best way to make improvements.

The Welsh Conservatives raised the matter again this week.

They say the best way of taking the politics out is to hold an independent public inquiry. The problem is that the inquiry call has now in itself become a politically divisive subject.

And then there's the Welsh government, which also insists it is trying to take the politics out. In fairness there's evidence that it has been trying.

I told you so

A fortnight ago the Welsh Health Minister Mark Drakeford point blank refused to say "I told you so" when the prime minister was facing a barrage of bad headlines on A&E waiting times.

The generous observation is that this is mature politics. The less generous one is that he didn't dare play politics because he knows there could be another set of damaging stats around the corner.

As it turned out that did happen when the latest A&E figures showed a deteriorating picture a few days later in Wales.

However, the latest results on cancer treatment have been more encouraging.

Before anyone gets carried away, the overall target is still being missed although there was an improvement on the month.

Ministers may feel like using them to hit back at the UK government but the problem with following the 'take politics out of the NHS' strategy is that it has to be applied in the good times as well as the bad.

That means coming out with restrained responses such as "making considerable progress" rather than something punchier for the headline writers to chew over.

All said and done, most people know it's entirely unrealistic to take politics out of the NHS at any time, never mind three and a half months before a general election, but it can be interesting to see the parties try.