The remarkable recovery of Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey from the deadly Ebola virus has occasioned much joy, not just among her family and friends but also in the medical community and the wider public.
Joining in the thanks of a grateful nation to Cafferkey’s doctors was Nicola Sturgeon, who rightly paid tribute to the NHS staff committed to her care.
When she first took ill, the Fife born nurse was sent to Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow but as soon as she was diagnosed she was transferred, by the RAF, to a specialist unit at the Royal Free Hospital in London. This was where the only other British Ebola victim, fellow nurse William Pooley, was treated in September last year, and where Ms Cafferkey’s best chance of survival lay.
This was a very high-profile case but many other Scottish patients seek medical attention across the border, for cancer drugs unavailable in Scotland, for transplants (where they can be matched with any UK donor), and for more routine inpatient and outpatient hospital appointments.
According to reports, more than 43,500 patients travelled south in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, a 12% increase on 2008.
Some people living near the border regularly flit between Scottish GPs and English hospitals, as if healthcare were immune to politics, as of course it should be.
It is strange, then, given the interchange between the UK’s health services, that the SNP has chosen the NHS as the chief weapon in its fight for independence.
During the referendum campaign and now in the run-up to the general election, “saving” Scotland’s NHS from English reform has become the Nationalists’ favourite refrain.
Only a separate Scotland, voters are warned, can safeguard our precious health system from English privatisation.
Ms Sturgeon has even said Nationalist MPs in Westminster will now vote on English only health (and education) issues where once they sat on their hands her excuse being to protect any spending that has an impact on Scotland and to stop attempts to “further privatise” the system in England.
As her party is tipped to gain at least 20 new seats in May a steep increase on its current six the SNP could end up influencing English health policy, a move which will have no bearing on health care in Scotland, which is completely devolved, but will naturally aggravate politicians, not to mention the electorate, south of the border.
If there was any evidence that health in Scotland was better managed and funded than in England, the Nationalists might be justified in their obsession.
But while there is competition and a market for the provision of services in England, their NHS is still financed from the public purse and has benefited from reorganisation. Recent research ranked Scotland below England in a European healthcare league, despite the fact that about £200 more is spent on each Scot per year.
The statistics, produced by the Swedish Health Consumer Powerhouse, identified “poor access to cancer drugs” in Scotland, as well as a failure to tackle the causes of ill health, such as heavy drinking, blood pressure problems and a lack of exercise.
The improvements made in England could serve as a prototype here if the SNP were not intent on playing politics with our health.
Not so long ago, the party seemed to acknowledge this, claiming in its 2013 white paper on independence that breaking up Britain would “not mean ending cross-border co-operation with health services in the rest of the UK”.
In fact, the Nationalists didn’t focus on the NHS until very late in the referendum campaign, after Alex Salmond’s disastrous performance in the first televised debate.
Health was seized on as an emotive subject that would appeal to traditional Labour voters.
Although the SNP lost the referendum, scaremongering over health was seen asa successful campaigning ploy, one thatMs Sturgeon has decided to reignite in her continued fight for secession.
This is purely a political strategy and Scots should not be fooled into thinking that, by putting health at the centre of their independence agenda, the Nationalists are serious about reform and about bringing Scotland’s NHS into the 21st century in line with other European countries.