Stephen Hawking went to the US in August 2009 to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his distinguished participation to science from Barack Obama and during his stay, Stephen Hawking discovered that a newspaper, Investor’s Business Daily, had written an article criticising public healthcare policies, insisting:
“People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.” Stephen’s great sense of humour was amused by the stupidity of this but he further understood that there was an opportunity to speak out in support of the NHS.
So he did, acknowledging the press that he would not have survived without the high-quality treatment he got from the NHS. This story encapsulates what was unique about Stephen’s support for the NHS and Stephen’s unique personal history encompassed excellent scientific creativity, his motor neurone disease and disability and his life experience of being an NHS patient.
And it is this that defines why Stephen’s backing for the NHS was intense and powerful as well as logical and scientific and why his campaigning was so important because Stephen Hawking saw the NHS as a supreme good, binding people to each other, and resulting in social benefits without a price.
His life was an illustration of that. In a very real sense, and we owe Stephen’s science and acumens into the nature of our universe to the NHS. Stephen Hawking also had an individual knowledge of the trauma of dealing with a health system in which private corporations boost their profits by withholding care or refusing to meet costs.
The health insurance of the university he was working at declined to fund his care costs when he fell ill and this reinforced his loyalty to the NHS and as the NHS came under greater and greater threat in recent years, Stephen stepped up his support. In August 2017, he gave the keynote speech at a Talk NHS audience at the Royal Society of Medicine to a conference of doctors, nurses and students. It was one of the most remarkable events.
He explained the story of his life, family, science and his knowledge of the NHS, giving these as tied indistinguishably together. There was laughter, applauding and an spontaneous standing applause and in his speech, Stephen didn’t dismiss the difficulties involved in implementing health care for an entire nation.
But his analysis was that a publicly-provided NHS that is actually comprehensive and ensures the best imaginable care to everyone, everywhere, based only on their need, is the justest and the most economically productive system.
He rebuked the two-tier policy that is happening, in which the free, openly accessible part of NHS care is not comprehensive but is becoming poorer and more limited, while those who can afford it pay for better care privately. Stephen’s analysis was that this is occurring because the universal healthcare and insurance groups have the ability to push through their privatising agenda and his diagnosis was that the NHS requires public recognition because people overwhelmingly dislike privatisation and if they knew what was occurring, they would take action against it.
Stephen Hawking himself took action by becoming a complainant in a major legal challenge to Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt and NHS England. Stephen Hawking and his co-complainants, Professor Allyson Pollock, Dr Graham Winyard, Prof Sue Richards and Dr Colin Hutchinson, acquired a judicial review of proposals for a major restructuring of the NHS into 44 so-called Accountable Care Organisations, bite-sized insurance-style systems that can be run for profit by private companies.
The suit against Jeremy Hunt and NHS England is that they have no powers under any current legislation on healthcare to make such sweeping adjustments and the challenge started at the High Court. Stephen Hawking was doing black holes with colleagues in Cambridge and Harvard, but he was still as open as ever about the significance of the case and the news of Stephen’s passing in March was a tremendous shock.
Stephen Hawking did an amazing talk at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM), and he moved people to tears with his resolve never ever to give up striving for an irreplaceable NHS. He is no longer with us and it is up to us all now to fight, in his memory, for ourselves, for each other, for our NHS.
The Cambridge University scientist, who openly supported Labour in the polls, attacked Mr Hunt of cherry-picking evidence to back his policies and the 75-year-old further stated he was concerned about the involvement of the private sector in the NHS in England.
However, Mr Hunt declared some of Mr Hawking’s remarks were pernicious. A statement issued by the Department of Health following the text of the address was given to the BBC in advance announced more money was being invested in the NHS and it had recently been ranked as a top-performing health system.
Prof Hawking, who had motor neurone disease for most of his adult life that diminished his mobility and capacity to speak, presented the speech at a gathering at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, organised to air concerns about the fate of the NHS.
The author of A Brief History of Time, who is a Labour advocate, announced he had been motivated to speak because of the role the health service has played in his life, stating if it was not for the NHS he wouldn’t be here today and in the address, Prof Hawking listed a number of occasions on which the NHS was there for him.
This covered an incident in 1985 when he got pneumonia in Switzerland. Doctors there recommended his ventilator be turned off to terminate his life, but his wife refused and he was rushed back to Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge where he got treatment and improved.
Fourteen years after that, he had pioneering throat reconstruction surgery in London after his health worsened and he was struggling to eat and breathe. He had a lot of involvement with the NHS and the care that he got allowed him to continue his life as he wanted and contributed to important advances in understanding the world, like his theories on black holes and the creation of the Universe.
His address then listed some of the developments in the NHS that troubled him, including the move toward what he called a US-style insurance system. He stated he thought there had been an increase in the private provision of care, including the use of agency workers, and that profit was being removed from the health service.
The more profit is removed from the system, the more private monopolies become and the more costly health care becomes. The NHS must be protected from commercial interests and shielded from those who want to privatise it. He stated that a publicly provided, publicly run system was the most efficient and so those who say we can’t afford the NHS are mistaken.
We can’t afford to not have the NHS and in his address, he also named Mr Hunt. In a segment about the move towards a seven-day NHS, Prof Hawking stated that while he would like there to be more services available at weekends, the government has declined to carry out proper due diligence, especially with regard to whether there would be enough staff.
The health secretary originally stated on Twitter that Mr Hawking was a brilliant physicist but wrong on the lack of a weekend effect in the NHS. He further stated the study into mortality rates associated with weekend NHS services was the most comprehensive ever.
But hours later he posted two more tweets, in which he stated Mr Hawking’s concerns, about the development in the UK of the kind of insurance system seen in the United States, were a pernicious falsehood.
He also stated the Conservatives had given the NHS with more cash and medical personnel than ever before and The Department of Health replied to Mr Hawking’s remarks by pointing out that the amount of personnel serving in the NHS was improving and it makes no apology for tackling the weekend effect.
It further stated that despite being busy, the NHS had been ranked as the best, safest and most affordable healthcare system out of 11 wealthy nations in a recent study by the Commonwealth Fund and that the government is fully committed to a world-class NHS, free at the point of use now and in the future, that’s why they’re backing it with an additional £8 billion of investment over the next five years.