I woke up this morning to hear the BBC reporting that there is going to be a “new IT system” to let pharmacists check whether people are entitled to free prescriptions.
The early reports on Today were notable for their lack of detail. A bit of hunting around on the web suggested that this was probably because they were based on stories in the Daily Mail and The Express about a “crack down” on prescription fraud.
The two right-wing papers, which are well known for gleefully accepting any story that can be presented as an attack on “scroungers”, have identical quotes from junior health minister Dan Poulter about returning £150 million to “frontline” services.
However, there is no formal announcement on the Department of Health or NHS England website about either a crack-down or a new IT system; and there is no plan for one in the commissioning board’s recent IT strategy, ‘Personalised Health and Care 2020.’
In passing, The Express reports that pharmacists are going to be able to access a Department of Work and Pensions system to check on prescription claims. So it looks to me that what is really happening here is that the government is announcing a link between NHS and DWP databases.
Now, if this was announced as such, it would be deeply controversial. A decade ago, the government was very keen on the idea of an identity card that would enable people to “prove” their entitlement to services, including NHS services.
In fact, when old soldiers came out of the woodwork to talk about tearing up their ID cards at the end of the war, ministers tried to tout the idea of an “entitlement card” instead.
The whole idea was eventually seen off by ‘No2ID’ and other pressure groups; with the support of the then-leader of the opposition, one David Cameron, who declared himself against “the database state” ahead of the general election.
If the government is really planning to let High Street chemists check medical prescriptions against DWP records (and probably the new database for Universal Credit, which is due to start an “accelerated roll-out” this spring) then the idea of an ID/entitlement card will have been resurrected; but without the card bit.
Of course, I could be wrong. But it looks as if the government has pulled off a spectacular piece of news management this morning. Get a junior minister to brief a couple of hand-picked papers with a line they’ll like in the quiet news days between Christmas and New Year.
Watch that line get taken up by the BBC and other news outlets with no real way of checking it, as there’s nobody in the relevant press offices, and barely anybody in their news rooms. Treat it as an old story as and when specialists and pressure groups get back to work in the New Year.
In short, hide a controversy by getting it out in plain sight. Neat. But outrageous at the same time.