Friday 17 February 2017 4:44 am

Theresa May is scared to admit that the unreformed NHS is crumbling around her – Copeland shows the cold reality

Kate Andrews is associate director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Anything can happen when faith comes under fire. Take the classic tale of Peter the Apostle, who denied Christ three times before the rooster crowed; and in a more modern twist, take Prime Minister May, who this week managed to dodge stating her support for West Cumberland Hospital’s maternity services four times over the course of one interview, while campaigning in the Copeland by-election.

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The comparison, while perhaps bold, seems fitting. As Nigel Lawson noted, the NHS is “the closest thing the English people have to a religion”.

Peter’s denial was driven by fear – and no doubt, so was May’s, though not necessarily fear of the by-election result. The Conservatives are looking competitive in a seat that has been a Labour stronghold since 1931. Lose, and no real harm should come to the Tories, besides conceding to Jeremy Corbyn that his Labour Party still can muster up trust in Brexit constituencies. Win, and May racks up another piece of evidence to put towards an already well-established theory: the Tory majority, for the time being, is indestructible.

May’s problem is that Britain’s healthcare structure has been deteriorating for a long time, and now the pillars are starting to fall all around her – maternity services acting as a case in point. She cannot promise expectant mothers in Copeland that their healthcare provision will be safeguarded or up-to-scruff. In fact, she can’t promise this to women anywhere in the UK.

The cold reality is that maternity wards are failing across the board, limiting choices for patients and increasing risks during pregnancy and birth. Ofsted-style rankings from 2016 show that three quarters of NHS maternity services are failing, while a report by the National Maternity Review for NHS England found “almost half of Care Quality Commission inspections of maternity services result in safety assessments that are either ‘inadequate’ (7 per cent) or ‘requires improvement’ (41 per cent)”.

Another study from just last month found that 50 per cent of mothers are being put in danger, or experiencing a “red flag event” during labour. This may account for why stillborn births are a more common occurrence in the UK than they are in Croatia or Estonia.

No doubt many of these shortcoming are due to understaffing – a problem affecting the NHS more generally, as doctors and nurses continue to seek better working environments abroad, where social insurance systems often provide better compensation and more flexibility for staff.

But Britain’s overall attitude towards the rationing of services has left areas like maternity badly compromised – not just in terms of risk factors, but also in how we deal with the anxieties and dramatic experiences that can occur during labour. International comparisons show that the UK’s European peers – Sweden, France, and Germany – achieve far more ambitious targets, or even 24/7 access, for epidurals and emergency C-sections, both of which make labour significantly more comfortable and safe for the mother.

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Women being directed from the West Cumberland Hospital’s maternity ward to the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle will be heading to another hospital that “requires improvement”, according to the NHS’s own website. But even if patients were being transferred from a struggling ward to a better-functioning one, it would be no long-term solution; fewer wards pressured by heavier demand will also begin to buckle.

Questions about the efficiency and sustainability of the NHS won’t be contained in Copeland. The Prime Minister might be able to dodge these questions a bit longer, but to pretend Britain can continue on with an unreformed system of healthcare would be an outright sin.