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‘Put some substance back into the concept of freedom’

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A recent report from the Academy of Medical Sciences suggested that the public were confused by information about medicines and that the leaflets should be less scary.

It may be the case that rather than listing every conceivable side-effect in a boring and jargonistic way, we need to start ‘bigging up’ our medicines and what pills can do. Perhaps we need to focus not just on the good but perhaps the added benefits?

“We have been force-fed austerity for the last seven years and it has ripped the heart out of public services”

Something like “yes it is a teensy bit possible these antipsychotics might make you fat, impotent and unable to use your tongue but remember they will also reduce your anxiety and it is possible you could grow thick hair on the palms of your hands, which could save you lots of money on gloves.”

One imagines that there is legislation that requires drug companies to tell their customers about possible side-effects so that people can make ‘informed’ choices. This is part of a regulatory process – protecting the interests and wellbeing of customers. Nurses are more than aware of the need and value of regulation.

Regulation is non-negotiable isn’t it? You can’t not tell people the side-effects they may get any more than you can tell a patient they are being seen by a nurse when they aren’t. Regulation exists to establish a baseline of standards, of protections, and yet, I believe we have found a way of fudging it a little, usually by using the word ‘freedom’.

Freedom tends to be a transcendent value. Last November, I sat beside two street drinkers living in a ripped tent, who told me they were better off than most because they were free. Freedom trumps most things including food or warmth. Don’t get me wrong – I like it, it’s nice, I think we should all have some, but as a word it can be quite insidious.

We have been force-fed austerity for the last seven years and it has ripped the heart out of public services. Not only has this happened in nursing, but as seen recently, in the fire service and in policing. It seems that systematic and ideological disinvestment has been supported by two recurrent and simple ideas.

“I think it is frightening that so many people didn’t recognise what the inevitable implications of those politics were”

The first is that services are ‘free’ to use whatever resources they have in whatever way they see fit. Your service is liberated from financial management from afar and you have control of your budget. It’s just a really small budget.

The second is the idea that public services became the public sector; that is to say they are primarily an economic category and a drain on resources rather than the things that hold society together. These ideas combine to make freedom a panacea for disinvestment and the public sector an obstacle to economic wellbeing.

It is horrible that we, as a society, appear to have needed a range of tragedies to recognise the implications of austerity and the myth of economic freedom. I think it is frightening that so many people didn’t recognise what the inevitable implications of those politics were. I fear that many still don’t.

Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope that people are being spoon-fed an opportunity to remember how to value the institutions and the staff who bind a society – the firefighters, the doctors and the nurses. Perhaps that might enable us to begin to invest in those services more appropriately? Establish standards and regulations that protect them, and in so doing, put some substance back into the concept of freedom? The freedom to be safe for example, or the freedom to receive health care when you need it.

Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Stranger than Kindness.

Follow him on Twitter: @markacradcliffe.

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