Britain's political and medical establishment have launched a concerted defence of the National Health Service in response to the attacks on the system in the US triggered by Barack Obama's plans for American healthcare reform.
After largely keeping out of the internal US debate, British political figures responded to the torrent of criticism the NHS has faced in the US by appealing directly to American voters and urging them to recognise its merits.
Labour also sought to embarrass David Cameron by challenging him to disown the comments made by the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, a known critic of the NHS, who this week appeared on American television saying that he "would not wish it on anybody" and that the cost of maintaining it had brought Britain close to Zimbabwean-style collapse.
Cameron said that Hannan was an "eccentric" who did not represent the views of the Conservative party on health. But Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, and Andy Burnham, the health secretary, all took to the airwaves to argue that Hannan's words exposed the shallowness of the Conservatives' commitment to the NHS.
Cameron faced further embarrassment on Friday when one of Hannan's Conservative colleagues in the European parliament expressed support for his position.
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's PM programme, Roger Helmer insisted: "Now we all love the NHS, but I think we all know in our hearts that it is no longer the envy of the world."
He went on: "If the Americans came to me and said would you recommend us taking up a system just like the British NHS? I think I would have to say 'No'."
Governments are normally reluctant to get involved in other countries' internal debates. But today the Department of Health confirmed that it was trying to influence the media debate in the US, where Republicans opposed to Obama's plans to extend health insurance have cited horror stories about the NHS as evidence of the dangers of socialised healthcare.
Gordon Brown and several ministers have already joined a Twitter campaign defending the NHS. The DoH is circulating a fact sheet prepared for Americans and Lord Darzi, the surgeon who served as a health minister, is giving interviews with American television to defend the NHS. Unison, the public service union, said it was sending literature to its sister unions in the US to counter the "gross lies and distortions". Prescott recorded a message on YouTube telling American voters about the history of the NHS. Aiming his message as much at a UK audience, Prescott focused on Hannan, who wants the NHS to be replaced with a Singapore-style system that would involve patients having individual health accounts.
This week Hannan told American TV: "The healthcare system we have is kind of a relic of an era in Britain when the state was considered all-powerful and benign and when we had rationing and when we had ID cards and when we had mass nationalisation. And we're still stuck with it because, once you get a system like that, it's almost impossible to get rid of. How amazing to me that a free people, you know, citizens of a country founded on the principle of independence, independence for the citizen as well as independence for the state, should be contemplating, in peacetime, burdening themselves with a system like this, which puts the power of life and death in a state bureaucracy."
Asked about Hannan's comments, the Conservative leader said the MEP had "some quite eccentric views about some things" and that "political parties always include some people who don't toe the party line on one issue or another issue". Cameron insisted his party supported the NHS strongly. "We are the party of the NHS, we back it, we are going to expand it, we have ringfenced it and said that it will get more money under a Conservative government, and it is our number one mission to improve it," he said.
Hannan was on holiday in France today and declined to respond. But Mandelson said British voters would be shocked to see a Conservative politician going to America to "slag off" the NHS.
"What we see is the two faces of the Conservative party – the one David Cameron wants everyone to see and believe, and the other one presented by the Conservative parliamentarian," he said.
Senior figures in British healthcare are frustrated at the portrayal of the NHS.
Mike Hobday, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "We are really furious at the way in which the NHS, which is the best healthcare system around, is being denigrated by a group of people who clearly don't have the first idea about how it works."
In its briefing document for the American press, the DoH points out that people with many of the most common diseases die earlier or in greater numbers in the US than in England. America fares badly in a direct comparison of key health performance indicators. "We've done this to clarify things and in order not to allow misconceptions about the NHS to go unchallenged," said one source.
World Health Organisation data shows that life expectancy in England – 78 – is a year longer than in the US and that nine babies out of every 1,000 born die before they reach five in America, compared with six in England, the DoH dossier says.
Source: The Guardian