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President’s update: September 2017

Last month I promised you the “vision thing”, as George Bush Sr once called it, but ran out of space. And am afraid you are going to be disappointed again, because the “vision thing” is back on the back burner, but I have an excuse, and it’s a good one. We hosted a meeting on Saturday 19 August which was unlike anything I have ever attended before.

So what was going on? We were hosting a day on the future of the NHS. There are a lot of such days around at the moment, since it’s a rather controversial issue at the moment. As was said during the recent election campaign “this election will decide the future of the NHS”. Actually, that has been said for every election since 1992, but never mind, everyone knows the pressures are more intense than ever.

So far so good. We had sold out – at only £10 a ticket it would turn out to be the bargain of the season. The programme, put together by Discourse, a group that promotes debate on the issues of the day, had a succession of big hitters in it. The format was a little different to the usual 45 minute talk followed by a couple of audience questions, always assuming the speaker hadn’t over run.

This time each speaker had only a few minutes to set out their stall, and then the sessions were given over to audience interaction, meaning that the chairing had to be excellent, which it was – Ayan Panja, GP and media star, Denis Campbell from the Guardian, and Philippa Whitford, breast cancer surgeon and SNP MP. The panels were as good as any we have ever had.

The result was an unusually young audience for the RSM, or indeed any Royal Society or College, exactly what we wanted. It was correspondingly lively, and rather more heated than we are used to, but so be it. And when the three formal sessions had finished at the end of the afternoon, I think those who had organised or hosted it were all well pleased. And still we had the “marquee signing” to come, as they say in football.

So by the time we came to the final session, in which we reverted to the rather more familiar format of a single distinguished lecture with no Q&A, not only was the atmosphere electric, there were also a string of TV vans blocking Wimpole Street, bright lights for TV cameras in the auditorium, and journalists wandering around interviewing anyone who moved. It was like waiting for a Hollywood A-list star appearance. Which is what we had.

Professor Stephen Hawking.

That explained part of the media frenzy going on. Professor Hawking is big box office. But there was more. Until the night before, we had no idea what he was going to say. And once we did, we knew there would be some sparks.

I introduced him with the time honoured phrase “our next speaker needs no introduction”, and I am pleased to say rather than then ramble on, as Chairs so often do despite such an introduction, I meant what I said and promptly sat down, no doubt to everyone’s relief. There was a huge cheer, and then complete and utter silence such as I have rarely experienced before as Professor Hawking’s got ready to speak. And speak he did.

It was, as I said elsewhere nothing short of a love letter to the NHS. The NHS that as he made clear, had saved his life on several occasions. It was also funny. Apparently many years ago “the doctor told my wife I was going to die” – pause for comic effect – “so I changed my doctor”.

Those in the audience that worked in the NHS (i.e. most of them), who have become used to a regular diet of regulation, inspection, appraisal, criticism and complaint, often coming from three letter arm’s length bodies aided and abetted by the media, made clear just how welcome it was just for once to be thanked for the work we do.

Professor Hawking then moved on to his fears about the future of the NHS. He singled out increased commercialisation and privatisation, and his fear that we were drifting towards an American style marketisation in which only those with insurance get care. The same concerns had surfaced earlier in the day from both speakers and audience, and Sarah Wollaston had given a robust defence, but the time for debate was now over, it was just the time to listen.

And then the moment for which the TV crews had been waiting for, alerted by the Guardian’s trailing of the content of the Professor’s speech that morning. He criticised the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, over the so called “weekend effect”, accusing the Secretary of State of “cherry-picking” the evidence to support one side of the case.

People say that politicians are thick skinned, and often they are. But not always, they are human as well. As sometimes when you prick them, they can bleed. So Mr Hunt had every right to defend himself and the government’s record, and like any scientist Professor Hawking would not expect to be above criticism. But was it wise to do so via Twitter?

The immediate and predictable result was that now the army of journalists had what they had come for – “Hawking versus Hunt”. But as one is a national treasure, indeed an International treasure, and the other is a politician, it was unlikely to end well for the latter. Afterwards I did some media interviews saying that we had hosted the meeting to start a debate on a topic of immense importance and that this was the beginning, not the end of the matter, and could not be reduced to “are you with Hunt or Hawking?” debate. But few were listening.

In the end it was a pity that anyone who did not attend the day will most probably imagine it was just about Hunt versus Hawking. It wasn’t. The “weekend effect” had not surfaced during the day itself, and was something of a distraction from the main themes – accountability, integration, competition, staffing and funding.

If Professor Hawking had ended his speech half way, Mr Hunt would no doubt have been on his feet alongside the audience – and on their feet they were, for the only second standing ovation I have ever seen at a medical conference. And likewise, Professor Hawking himself acknowledged that he had found hospitals to be slower at the weekend, and that it was perfectly legitimate to address this issue, although he did strongly disagree with how that had been taken forward.

So what do I remember? First, an audience far younger than our normal turnout, and an audience with much to say. Second, the extraordinary Stephen Hawking. That the NHS has saved his life is indisputable, and it was right and proper for him to give his thanks to the organisation and its staff. The cheers at the end were for two things – that he had survived, and that many of us were part of the organisation that had saved him. And finally, we wanted to position ourselves as a neutral space for discussions on key issues, and there are few things more key than the future of the NHS, not as a one-off, but as an ongoing process.

This meeting was the start of that process. But I don’t think any of us anticipated that it would be quite such a Big Bang. But that’s what you get if you invite a cosmologist.

To contact the President you can email or follow him on Twitter @WesselyS

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