All hail our Glorious NHS and Proton Beam Therapy

We have glorious news on the tractor production front - the National Health Service now offers proton beam therapy. This is indeed good news and not worthy, in itself, of the sneering we’re giving it. And yet it’s also true that the very same NHS was a pioneer of the technique, 30 years ago. Further, the only reason we’re getting it now is because of that competition so derided. This isn’t thus a story about how leading edge technology is being brought to us by our Wonder of the World, but how monopoly limits and delays technological adoption.

A 15-year-old boy has spoken of his excitement at being among the first to have NHS proton beam therapy in the UK.

Mason Kettley, who suffers from a rare brain tumour, began treatment on Tuesday - five years after the parents of Ashya King sparked an international manhunt when they took him abroad in search of treatment.

Until last month, NHS patients were sent as far away as the US for treatment, if specialist doctors said it was required.

Now the Christie Hospital in Manchester has begun offering the highly targeted treatment, with Mason the fourth case to undergo it, and the first to speak publicly about it.

We wish him and the others that will follow a good recovery and a long life. And yet, and yet. The world’s first hospital based proton beam treatment centre was mere miles away from this one, the Clatterbridge cancer centre. In, umm, 1989.

And what did happen in the Ashya King case? The NHS said, well, we don’t offer that treatment. There was even legal intervention to try to ensure that the lad did not receive it elsewhere. Which he did, a charity funded centre in Prague offering it seemingly - so far at least - successfully.

So, what is it that we expect to see from a monopoly? A certain lack of leading edge technology as the incentives and impulses from competition don’t demand its adoption. What did we see from the NHS?

Quite, and what did happen? That private sector in the UK competition didn’t do it but the political embarrassment of that foreign impelled action and investment. Which gives us two economic lessons for the day.

The NHS may be, is, many things. But as a monopoly it’s going to be well behind that leading edge of the available technology. We also see one of the values of imports - yes, that treatment of Ashya was an import of health care services - in that they provide the competition which improves home grown monopolies by breaking them, even at the margin.

Just think how much better off we’d be if we didn’t rely upon the imports for this driving of technological change but had the competition at home to impel it?