By a Newsnet reporter
An “astonishing lack of knowledge” on the part of the Labour party over how the NHS functions across the constituent parts of the UK has been seized on by the Scottish National Party.
In his keynote conference speech, Labour leader Ed Miliband claimed that a Scottish woman treated in an English hospital was proof of the benefits of the Union.
Cathy Murphy, a 66 year old Labour member, collapsed with an aortic aneurysm at the party’s 2011 conference and underwent a 14-hour operation at Liverpool Broadgreen Hospital, a centre of excellence for cardiac care.
According to the Labour leader, Mrs Murphy received better treatment because she was a UK national.
“They care about her because she is Scottish and British, a citizen of our United Kingdom.” he said.
Amid wild cheering, Mr Miliband implied that had Mrs Murphy not been British, she may not have received the same treatment, adding: “Friends, I don’t want Cathy to become a foreigner. Let’s win the battle for the United Kingdom.”
However the SNP immediately seized on the Labour leader’s claims, describing them as a “blunder” which played, “right into the hands of the case for Yes”.
Scottish National Party Westminster leader Mr Angus Robertson MP said:
“For Ed Miliband to use the NHS as a reason to attack independence shows an astonishing lack of knowledge both about the National Health Service and about Scotland.
“The reality is that Scotland is already independent in terms of health policy, and it is precisely because NHS Scotland comes under the remit of the Scottish Parliament, rather than Westminster, that we are able to protect and develop the founding ethos of our health service, in stark contrast to the privatisation and fragmentation happening south of the border.”
Interviewed later on Radio Scotland, Labour MP Tom Greatrex was unable to explain why the cross border healthcare arrangements would not continue after independence.
Pressed on his leader’s claims that Mrs Murphy was treated because she was British, the MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West appeared to backtrack on the earlier claims.
“It wasn’t the fact that she was taken ill when she happened to be in England. It was the follow on treatment, the specialist treatment, the centre of excellence for the NHS was in England.”
The Labour MP insisted that “it still works as one NHS” and that Mrs Murphy may be prevented from receiving any follow up treatment if Scotland was independent.
However Angus Robertson pointed out that experts have already confirmed that exactly the same cross-border healthcare arrangements that NHS Scotland is obliged to have now – with counterparts in the rest of the UK and overseas – would apply in an independent Scotland.
He added: “In terms of the Project Fear stories we are used to from the No campaign, this was every bit as silly as the mobile phone roaming charges scare.”
Interviewed after listening to Mr Miliband’s speech, 66-year-old Mrs Murphy appeared to have accepted the Labour leader’s claims as fact.
She said: “What concerns me [about independence] is that I would lose some of the expertise. We would not have the sharing of it. Down south, they’ll have their experts and we’ll have ours.
“I would be asking Alex Salmond who is going to pay for the NHS in Scotland if they do separate and where are we going to get all the experts that we have down south that we have not got in Scotland?”
She added: “At the moment I’m just so happy that I’m British and under the UK and can be treated down south and there aren’t any questions. If we were independent, I don’t know what is going to happen.”
Evidence of cross border healthcare cooperation has already been published by pro-independence campaign group Yes Scotland. One story involved a mother whose baby received treatment in Germany after officials from England, Scotland and Germany seamlessly worked together.
Consultant Izhar Khan has criticised claims that cross-border medical treatment and co-operation would be under threat in an independent Scotland.
He spoke out after Jackie Baillie, former Labour Shadow Health Spokesperson and a director of the No Campaign, claimed that a Yes vote in next year’s referendum would lead to reciprocal patient treatment being mired in red tape and complex regulation.
Dr Khan said “This appears to be nothing more than scaremongering. As a doctor, I do not ask if a patient is Scottish, English, Irish or Welsh. Doctors treat patients, not nationalities.”
He added: “An independent Scotland would continue these arrangements for a number of very straightforward and sensible reasons – not least because these services are paid for and are extra-contractual.
“Money follows the patient from Scotland and the struggling NHS in England is not going to refuse lucrative contracts.”