The Greatest Show On Earth


From the great theatrical showman in Las Vegas to the street-hustlers on trestle tables asking tourists to watch the cups; misdirection, the foremost requirement of magic, is a deception in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another.

No matter in what forum they perform, from street magicians to TV illusionists, magicians have the ability to use their skills to create something out of nothing, of reordering the universe to defy the rules of logic before our very eyes – and who knew that the Conservative government was creating the greatest show on earth.

The warm-up act began with the July budget, with the chancellor’s announcement that 3.3 million low income families were to lose out up £1,600 a year through the slashing of Tax Credits. After much public debate and a defeat in the House of Lords (a vote which the government could have rammed through using the Parliament Act if it chose), the government’s headline-grabbing retreat and subsequent U-turn on tax credits was seen by many as a hard-won victory. However, as the thundering applause of congratulation deafened the noise of the pulleys and winches behind the scenes, the replacement of Tax Credits by the Universal Credits system (that will still see 2.6 million working families lose up to £1,600 a year) continues its glide through Parliamentary procedure.

The next act has seen Jeremy Hunt enter the stage as the villain of the piece against the hard-working Junior Doctors. While media attention has been focussed on the Junior Doctor’s contract changes and the doctor’s subsequent strikes, other impacts on the NHS are now slipping by unnoticed. In December 2015 the government announced a funding cut for community pharmacies in England of 6% to take effect from October 2016, a move described as “profoundly damaging” and would “deliver a destructive blow to the support community pharmacies can offer to patients and the public” by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee’s (PSNC) chief executive Sue Sharpe. In response to the announcement made by open letter to PSNC and other key pharmacy bodies, Mrs Sharpe continued:

“Almost inevitably the impact of the cuts will force pharmacies to reduce staffing levels and direct more people to GP or urgent care… We remain staggered at the decision by the NHS to abandon negotiations on a national minor ailments service over the summer, a move entirely inconsistent with exploiting the potential identified in the letter.”

Indeed, considering the effects of such cuts would equate to a pharmacy losing the same amount of money it would cost to take on a fully qualified, full time dispenser – a cost which many community pharmacies would not be able to afford. Despite stating that spending on the NHS would increase by £10 billion in real terms through the current parliament, the funding drive to pay for this through efficiencies will force many pharmacies out of business.

However, the biggest trick to reign in the ‘wasteful’ NHS is yet to come.

In the House of Lords some Conservative members (including, surprisingly, some Labour Lords) have begun to call for a greater debate in the direction of NHS funding. In a debate in July last year, Tory peer Lord Cornmack suggested:

All forms of funding must be looked at. We have to have a plurality of funding if we are to have a sustainable NHS. Whether the extra funding comes from compulsory insurances or certain charges matters not, but it has to come.

Followed by a contribution from Labour Lord Warner:

Our tax-funded, largely free at the point of clinical need NHS is rapidly approaching an existential moment. The voices of dissent and outrage will no doubt be deafening but a wise Government should begin now the process of helping the public engage in a discourse about future funding of the NHS.

Is it really the beginning of another magic trick? Perhaps – but when watching the greatest show on earth we have to remember that not everything is real, and that the magician makes us look at what he wants us to see. To put it another way; when you’re concentrating on watching the cups, make sure no one is going through your purse.

* Alex Hegenbarth led the Remain campaign in Swindon but now lives in Cheltenham..