Stephen Hawking was a longtime champion of the NHS, but it was a glaring slip in the media that provoked one of his more memorable interventions. As the Obama administration sought to reform the US healthcare system in 2009, the US Investor’s Business Daily argued that Stephen Hawking “wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless”.
It was duly pointed out that Hawking was not only born and educated in England, but received more care than most from the nation’s health service. “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS,” Hawking told the Guardian at the time. “I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”
A very small percentage of people with motor neurone disease live for decades after their diagnosis. Hawking was one of those rare outliers: his disease progressed rapidly at first and then slowed dramatically. But it was the NHS, rather than medical good luck, which saved his life, notably with a tracheotomy in 1985, though the NHS kept him alive many times later too, in particular over the winters when he was vulnerable to respiratory infections.
Hawking’s robust defence of the NHS set the tone for the row to come. When the NHS was plunged into crisis amid plans to privatise the service, Hawking lashed out at the politicians he held responsible in a 2017 speech at the Royal Society of Medicine. He blamed ministers for funding cuts, pay caps and weakening the service through privatisation. He saw it all leading to a “US-style insurance system”.
He singled out Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, for particular criticism. In arguing for a seven-day NHS, Hunt claimed that 11,000 patients a year died because of understaffing of hospitals at weekends. Hawking pointed out that of the eight studies Hunt had cited, four were not peer reviewed, and that 13 more that Hunt had failed to mention contradicted the view.
“Speaking as a scientist, cherrypicking evidence is unacceptable,” Hawking said. “When public figures abuse scientific argument, citing some studies but suppressing others, to justify policies that they want to implement for other reasons, it debases scientific culture.”
Hawking’s speech prompted a swift response from Hunt, who accused the cosmologist of spreading “pernicious falsehoods”. But Hawking came back, arguing there was overwhelming evidence that NHS funding, and the numbers of doctors and nurses, were inadequate, and that the NHS was heading towards a US-style healthcare system run by private companies. Hunt, he pointed out, named Kaiser Permanente, the major US healthcare provider, as a model for the future budgetary arrangements of the NHS before the Commons health select committee in 2016. In response, Hunt insisted the NHS would “remain a single-payer, taxpayer-funded system free at the point of use”.
After what appeared to be a three-month cessation of hostilities, Hawking joined a lawsuit in December aimed at blocking Hunt’s plans for the NHS. The judicial review seeks to stop the introduction of the first accountable care organisations, or ACOs, into the NHS in April. Hawking said they appeared to be a way to reduce public spending, cut services and allow private companies to benefit by organising and providing services.
Prof Allyson Pollock, the director of the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University, who helped to bring the lawsuit, said: “Stephen Hawking understood better than anyone else what the NHS meant. It enabled him to live a long life. He understood how important it was.
“Over the last six months he remained completely committed to the fight to defend the NHS, to stop privatisation and its breakup. I can think of no better testament to his memory than to reinstate the NHS as a public service and that’s what he fought for until the end.”