Daniel Jackson

Labour, Prince Charles and homeopathic quacks: Andy Burnham has some explaining to do

Labour, Prince Charles and homeopathic quacks: Andy Burnham has some explaining to do
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Obfuscation is an important tool in the kit of any snake oil salesman, which helps to explain why the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital has changed its name. It’s now known as The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine. In this context the word ‘integrated’ is used because it’s suitably vague. It’s a catch-all term to describe any treatment ‘outside of mainstream healthcare’ – or in other words, treatments that don’t work.

Homeopathy is a huge embarrassment to the NHS, but it’s not nearly as maligned as it should be. In fact it has one very prestigious backer, with a direct line to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. Prince Charles’ ‘black spider memos’ reveal the extent of his lobbying for the widely discredited practice.

It’s becomingly increasingly clear that Tony Blair’s government dribbled away money on witchcraft to keep the Prince of Wales – who is passionate about alternative medicine – happy. In a letter to Alan Johnson, then health secretary, he wrote:

‘I have been convinced for many years that we in the United Kingdom need to do more to encourage and facilitate good health, as well as to treat illness, and that there should be more of a “whole person” approach to the treatment of illness rather than a “reductionist” focus on the particular ailment. In addition, I am sure that more can be done to take advantage of complementary medicine, not as an alternative or competitor to conventional medicine, but as part of an integrated approach with the same doctor being able to provide or suggest conventional and/or complementary remedies and treatments as he and the patient see.

This is why, during our meeting, I raised the question of the N.H.S. Homeopathic Hospitals and the threats they appear to face to their existence. It is, I think, important to realize that the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital is, in fact, the largest and best integrated public sector provider of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Europe, to which the number of referrals had been steadily increasing until what seems to amount to the recent, “anti-homeopathy campaign”.’

Alan Johnson has nothing to worry about. His response to Charles’ lobbying was very cautious, and either way, these days he’s mostly known for late night political chat. But Andy Burnham has some explaining to do. He’s up to his neck in all of this, and it’s come at the worst possible time for him. In fawning letters to the Prince written during his stint as health secretary, he made it clear that he was in favour of a pilot study to integrate - there’s that term again - ‘complementary medicine’ with standard NHS care. He described a pilot in Northern Ireland, which allowed GP referrals for aromatherapy, acupuncture and homeopathy, as ‘very interesting’. This is the man who wants to be our next Prime Minister.

I don’t doubt that the Prince is motivated by anything other than a desire to help, but diverting funds from healthcare to mysticism is extremely dangerous. Michael Marshall of The Good Thinking Society explains why:

‘While many people may believe homeopathy is synonymous with natural or herbal remedies, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Homeopathy is based on the false idea that the more a remedy is diluted, the stronger it becomes – thus the strongest remedies contain no active ingredients at all. It is no hyperbole to say that these are literally sugar pills, and nothing more. Despite this, the NHS spends between three and five million each year giving these dummy pills to sick patients – and with limited NHS resources available, this spend is clearly indefensible.

The NHS is supporting a theory of medicine which bears no relation to evidence, or indeed to reality. The NHS should not be funding remedies that have been comprehensibly shown to be ineffective, when those funds could be far better allocated to treatments that offer a genuine benefit to patients.’

The Prince’s views do, however, align with those of a group calling itself Homeopathy Heals Me, which has started this petition on change.org. It claims that homeopathy in the NHS is ‘under attack’. If only. Its use at public expense is surprisingly widespread for a practice with no credibility. As well as the Bloomsbury unit there are similar hospitals in Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. If any further evidence was needed that change.org is a refuge for morons, this is it. The petition has been signed by almost 30,000 people:

‘The Good Thinking Society is trying to get rid of all NHS homeopathy throughout Britain. It has threatened the Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) with legal action over its decision to fund referrals to the Liverpool Medical Homeopathy Service and plans to do the same with the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital and other NHS homeopathic services throughout Britain.’

The Good Thinking Society has recently provided us with further evidence of homeopathy’s ineffectiveness. Michael Marshall phoned Freeman’s pharmacy in Glasgow to ask about their ‘homeopathic owl remedy’, which supposedly cures insomnia. I highly recommend listening to the call yourself, but if you can’t stop laughing then here’s the important point: these people supply the NHS, and that’s not funny. This isn’t an ostracised crank with a pitch in Barrowlands market; this is a company which claims to have supplied the NHS for 35 years.

Homeopathy has two things in its favour: the enthusiastic support of our future head of state, and the illusory nature of its benefits. It’s very difficult to convince believers that it doesn’t work. Treatment is based on the idea that water has a ‘memory’ of the things it touches; you don’t actually have to ingest any part of an owl to obtain all of the benefits of doing so. Anyone who believes that is beyond reasoning with. I would have liked to end this piece with a hearty ‘long live the Queen’, but apparently she believes in it too.