The good old screening smokescreen

You will have seen those wildlife films where David Attenborough pokes a squid with a stick and the annoyed squid squirts out a jet of ink to cloud the waters, create a diversion and escape.

Maybe it wasn't actually David himself, he seems too gentle a person to provoke an innocent animal in such a cruel and exploitive fashion; it's more the kind of thing Steve Irwin would have done.

The use of diversionary tactics runs all the way through the animal kingdom; it is by now a well-accepted method of survival. Whether New Labour is further up or down the evolutionary scale than a squid is uncertain, creationism might suggest than they were all born on the same day, but they have learned the lesson well.

When times are tough, Iraq is an ongoing disaster, house prices are stalling, immigration policy is a mess, the prisons are overcrowded and Gordon Brown has gone from being the Iron Chancellor to Fozzy Bear, New Labour will chuck out the same old smokescreen and kick for a safe touch.

Only a few months after the last one, we see a fanfare on the front pages, 'Free health checks for everyone'. This 'MOT', as it is cutely termed, will include age and sex, which, presumably, most patients will already know, and it will be utilised only by the worried well. And hasn't it always been free?

A spokesman for the pilot scheme explained breathlessly that they'd already detected three undiagnosed diabetics. Which is okay, but how much has it cost and would they have been diagnosed anyway at some stage?

These health checks will apparently save the NHS a fortune by preventing disease. Well, duh, they won't; detecting more disease means treating more disease. For example, instead of an undiagnosed diabetic dying from an MI at age 60, with his productive years behind him, which means zero cost, he now may live on for many years of increasingly expensive medical treatment, maybe culminating in dialysis, which costs a fortune.

If they are serious about saving money, they could simply run a continuous campaign; don't smoke, don't drink too much, eat a balanced diet, exercise three times a week, get your BP and cholesterol checked. Have I missed anything?

And if you don't already know, ask your partner about your age and sex.

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at

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