Physicist Stephen Hawking found himself in a war of words with the government after he said it had caused a crisis in the state-run National Health Service (NHS) and was leading it towards a profit-making US-style system.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper yesterday, the British cosmologist, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 21, also accused the government’s health minister Jeremy Hunt of cherry-picking scientific evidence to justify policies.
Hunt hit back saying that Hawking, author of the bestselling book A Brief History of Time, was wrong and that his criticism was a “pernicious falsehood”.
“The care I have received since being diagnosed with motor neurone disease as a student in 1962 has enabled me to live my life as I want, and to contribute to major advances in our understanding of the universe,” wrote Hawking.
Founded in 1948, the NHS is a source of huge pride for many Britons who are able to access free care from the cradle to the grave, but in recent years tight budgets, an ageing population and more expensive, complex treatments has put the system under huge financial strain.
Hawking, a supporter of the opposition Labour Party, said that the NHS was “a cornerstone of our society” but was in crisis because of political decisions.
It was also facing a conflict between the interests of multinational corporations driven by profit and public opposition to increasing privatisation, he said.
“In the US, where they are dominant in the healthcare system, these corporations make enormous profits, healthcare is not universal, and it is hugely more expensive for the outcomes patients receive than in the UK,” Hawking wrote. “We see the balance of power in the UK is with private healthcare companies, and the direction of change is towards a US-style insurance system.”
Last year, English doctors staged their first strikes in four decades over government plans to reform pay and conditions as part of moves to deliver what it said would be a consistent service seven days a week as studies showed mortality rates were higher at weekends when staffing is reduced.
However, Hawking, who communicates via a cheek muscle linked to a sensor and computerised voice system, said Hunt had cherry-picked research to justify his arguments.
“For a scientist, cherry-picking evidence is unacceptable. When public figures abuse scientific argument, citing some studies but suppressing others to justify policies they want to implement for other reasons, it debases scientific culture,” he wrote.
Hunt responded on Twitter saying no health secretary could ignore the “comprehensive” evidence and said his government had put more money, doctors and nurses into the NHS than ever before.
“Stephen Hawking is brilliant physicist but wrong on lack of evidence 4 weekend effect,” Hunt wrote. “Most pernicious falsehood from Stephen Hawking is idea govt wants US-style insurance system. Is it 2 much to ask him to look at evidence?”
The shadow health minister, Justin Madders, weighed in on the row: “It doesn’t take a genius to work out the Tories are wrecking the NHS.
“Professor Hawking has given us answers to many of the universe’s most challenging questions, and even he can’t work out why Jeremy Hunt is still in his job.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said Hawking was a “brilliant scientist” with a “brilliant mind” and “brilliant thought process” who should be listened to.
Speaking to broadcasters in north Wales, Corbyn added: “And if Stephen Hawking is saying that our NHS is under threat and in danger and in crisis then I think we need to listen very, very carefully with what he has to say. I admire Stephen and I agree absolutely with what he said.”
The former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “A renowned scientist such as Stephen Hawking questioning your evidence might
normally be cause to think again, but sadly it looks as though Jeremy Hunt has joined the chorus of those who have had enough of experts.
“It’s easy to accept evidence when it supports your ideological view of how a service should be provided, but we see this government ignoring the evidence time and time again when it suits them, be it on the NHS, our school system or leaving the single market.”
Social media users, including many doctors and scientists, mocked the health secretary for taking on the “world’s most famous scientist”.
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, responded directly to Hunt, citing studies and articles that contradicted his argument.
McKee, who said he has been writing on the subject of hospital mortality for 22 years, added: “I’d appeal to those commenting not to
personalise this with attacks on Hunt – let’s stick to evidence – it’s strong enough on its own.”
Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at Oxford University, said: “Awake to tweet from Jeremy Hunt telling Stephen Hawking he doesn’t know how to interpret evidence. Replies are good.”
Dr Lauren Gavaghan , a consultant psychiatrist whose speech about the junior doctors dispute on James O’Brien’s LBC radio show last year went viral, told the Guardian that Hunt “purposefully misinterpreted” statistics from a faulty paper around NHS weekend deaths, when the authors explicitly said that to use the figures would be “rash and misleading”.
As a consequence of this, sick people did not seek medical help at weekends.
“Subsequent research has shown his ‘analysis’ to be wrong, yet the harm has unfortunately already been done. For Jeremy Hunt to now have the audacity to dispute Professor Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s most brilliant mind and a man who has dedicated his life to
the complex analysis of data, on the interpretation of these academic papers is quite simply laughable.”
Gavaghan called for Hunt to debate with Hawking on live television.
“Given also that Jeremy Hunt enjoys presenting himself as a patient advocate, it would seem that he has an opportunity at humility here, to perhaps learn something from an experienced patient – for Professor Hawking has of course himself been a lifelong patient of the NHS.
“He has much to say about the rapid privatisation of the NHS that is taking place currently, and fears this will lead to an unequal, unfair
two-tier health service. I wonder if Jeremy Hunt might take up my offer,” she said.
Hunt: Stephen Hawking is brilliant physicist but wrong on lack of evidence.