Perhaps it was the result of it being a bank holiday, and a general shortage of non-weather-related news, but Monday’s Western Mail granted the Tories yet another headline based on their opposition to giving free paracetamol to millionaires. The sense in which this can be classed as news, let alone a hold-the-front-page revelation, escapes me; it’s not as if they haven’t been saying the same thing for many years. Here’s the 2012 version of the same story, and here it is again from 2014.
‘Paracetamol for millionaires’ is, of course, short hand for ‘giving over the counter medicines on prescription’ to anyone who needs them; but since they keep using that shorthand, it’s far to ask whether there is any truth at all in the claim. There are, apparently, around 12,500 millionaires in Wales, out of a total population of around 3 million. I suppose that some of them must get headaches from time to time – it’s not easy looking after all that cash – and thus require an occasional paracetamol. And millionaires don’t get rich by spending money if they don’t have to, so the attraction of not spending 30p at the local supermarket is clearly attractive. But here’s the thing – millionaires also don’t get rich by wasting their time phoning the doctor’s surgery to make an appointment, travelling to the surgery and sitting around for up to an hour waiting their turn to be seen. I suppose that, on the law of averages, there must be at least 1 of those 12,500 who has had free paracetamol at some point over the last year, but I somehow doubt that millionaires’ predilection for paracetamol is a significant cause of cash problems for the NHS.
The fact that, under a policy of making prescriptions free, it is theoretically possible that an occasional millionaire can get his or her paracetamol free of charge doesn’t mean that it’s actually happening on a wide scale, which is what the Tories’ hyperbole is effectively claiming. But what we do know is that, under the previous system of paid-for prescriptions (which, let us remember, had such a wide range of exemptions that the majority of prescriptions in Wales were free anyway), some people on the margins, who struggled to find the money to pay, felt pressed into not taking all the medications which they were prescribed. And if the ‘cost’ of helping that group is the purely theoretical possibility that the very rich could, if they were so minded, get free paracetamol, then I and many others would consider that a very cheap price for the benefit delivered.
There is, though, a much bigger threat to the viability of the NHS than an occasional free packet of paracetamol ending up in the hands of a millionaire. That threat comes largely from those politicians who don’t really believe that the NHS should be free to all at point of use, who want to introduce more charges for services, who limit the amount of money available to pay for the service, and who try to create false choices and conflicts between different groups of users of the service. For them, sweeping away free prescriptions is just the starting point for a wider rolling back of the service. No wonder that they return to the same subject, year after year.