The founding principle of the NHS was that it would offer free-at-the-point-of-delivery healthcare. Surely this should apply whether you go to hospital as a patient, as a visitor or a member of staff. It's simply not fair to expect patients or visitors to have to pay when they come to hospital, when they may be suffering personal anxiety, stress or grief. For this reason I welcome yesterday's announcement by the Scottish government (following on from a similar announcement by the Welsh Assembly earlier this year) to scrap car parking charges at the vast majority of its hospitals (3 hospitals will be exempt because of PFI agreements - don't get me started on that one).
It was hugely disappointing that the UK Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw, immediately announced yesterday that he did not believe it was a "sensible use of limited resources" to subsidise car parking at hospitals in England. Really? According to the DoH the NHS should end this financial year with a £1.75 billion surplus, surely it would not be unreasonable to use a small amount of this total surplus to offset the £95 million that NHS Trusts took from car parking charges in 2006-2007?
The reality thought is that yesterday's decision by the Scottish Executive simply adds to the ever widening health care divide, under which patients in England are denied services and benefits enjoyed by those living elsewhere in the UK. For example in Scotland, NHS patients have access to more cancer drugs, benefit from free eye tests and get free personal care when elderly. In Wales prescriptions are free, while English patients must pay £6.85. Abolishing car parking charges at England's NHS hospitals would be a small but significant gesture and one that would illustrate the desire for fairness and equity to be at the centre of public policy.