Correspondence and a linked Editorial in this week's Lancet criticise the election tactics employed by the British National Party (BNP) prior to the recent European Elections.
Before the European elections last month, the BNP distributed 29 million election leaflets featuring quotes alongside images of archetypal BNP supporters. Among them was a photograph of a white doctor alongside the quote: "I'm voting BNP because I see what immigration has done to the NHS".
Dr Dave Baguley, Southampton General Hospital, Southampton, UK, and colleagues say in the Correspondence: "If it were not poisonous enough in itself, the quote becomes more dangerous through its anonymity: without association to a named individual, it reflects all white British doctors. This powerful image might have influenced voters in favour of the BNP; moreover, it has huge potential to damage our vital relationships with patients from ethnic minorities or from other countries."
The people depicted in these BNP leaflets have since been exposed as actors from outside the UK. Dr Baguley and colleagues are frustrated that 'the General Medical Council was unable to take any action unless a "named" doctor was involved.', and that 'The British Medical Association (BMA) chose not to condemn the leaflet through a general press release to avoid giving the BNP further publicity. Instead, a short article appeared in the BMA News. For further action the BMA recommended writing to local newspapers.'
Dr Baguley and colleagues conclude: "The global economic conditions in 1930 were conducive to allowing the Nazi Party to become the second-largest within the Reichstag. In the European elections, significant gains were made by far-right parties with strong anti-immigration policies, reflecting a reaction to mainstream parties' handling of the current economic crisis. The BNP, and other nationalist parties in Hungary and Austria, all won parliamentary seats for the first time. How appropriate is not taking a stand against their extremist and damaging views?
"Our profession's neutrality is a precious virtue, and use of the medical profession to promote any political party is unacceptable. The responsibility for safeguarding the public's perception of doctors is of fundamental importance and something the professional bodies that represent us should protect at any cost."
The Lancet Editorial adds that health tourism is a myth that has long been perpetuated by anti-immigration groups, including the BNP. Meanwhile, the benefits of immigration are rarely reported or promoted by politicians who prefer to make migrants scapegoats for problems in the NHS. In truth, immigration has made a massive contribution to running the NHS. Around 16% of the 1•4 million people who work in the NHS are from a minority ethnic background, including 30% of doctors and nurses, 16% of midwifery and health-visiting staff, and 5-7% of staff in ambulance services.
The Editorial says: "Such diversity has been, and continues to be, essential for providing services not only for the majority white population but also for ethnic minorities, who make up 15% of the population in England. Black and minority ethnic groups will also play a large part in the future of the NHS-around 30% of today's medical students have such a background."
It concludes: "A combination of insidious campaigning tactics by the BNP, low-voter turnout, and increasing concerns amidst the economic crisis led to the election of a party whose dangerous ideas present a threat to health in the UK. Doctors' leaders should be vocal in counteracting these views and supporting the ethnic minority workforce who have provided a vital lifeline to the NHS for decades."
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