Wednesday, December 17, 2014

They sure do things different over there 

This post has been cross-posted at Harry's Place

Sometimes its just a real eye opener going to another country, even one that close by and realising how parochial so much of our politics in the UK is and how little knowledge we have of other countries customs, politics and norms.

On a recent trip to Germany it was a bit of a liberation after a long drive to realise the autobahn we were driving on had no speed limit. Yes driving at over 100 mph which is an offence you can lose your licence for in the UK is legal on large parts of German motorways. There has been much discussion concerning the safety aspects of this policy (see here) but it seems there is no definite conclusion that the lack of a speed limit on the autobahn causes a major increased road fatality rate compared to other European countries (note in all countries the % of fatalities that happen on motorways is low < 15%).

Another different attitude can be found concerning the ban on smoking in pubs. In the picturesque Rhineland villages we visited we found most of the the bars ("stubes")  allowed smoking inside (not a totally pleasant experience having been used to the changed UK situation). And even in Frankfurt there was a bar with a sign outside saying “RaucherLokal” (Smokers Local) right in the city centre. Being a bit surprised about this I looked up the situation and found that indeed different regions (Länder) in Germany have different rules (see here), basically it appears that small owner managed bars are exempt in certain regions. Probably this is due to a sensible reaction to the adverse effect that the no-smoking rules have had on the bar sector and look indeed on the effect the rules have had in the UK on the pub trade.

But imagine if it was suggested that in the UK certain non food serving locals should be exempt from the smoking ban. I imagine there would be an outcry in the media with various self-important heath and safety gurus all over the media bemoaning it. And perhaps it might lead to a rise in lung cancer as indeed of course the autobahn lack of speed limit might cause more road deaths. However as with anything else the health implications of a policy are not the only factor we need to take into account in making these decisions.

In the UK these kinds of health and safety issue are nearly always bound up with discussions re cost to the UK health service as we have a fully government funded and publicly run service. But other countries are different. In Germany the service is run by private non-profit funds and insurance companies under govt regulation and nearly everyone pays an insurance premium of some kind. From Wikipedia :
Compulsory insurance applies to those below a set income level and is provided through private non-profit "sickness funds" at common rates for all members, and is paid for with joint employer-employee contributions. Provider compensation rates are negotiated in complex corporatist social bargaining among specified autonomously organized interest groups (e.g. physicians' associations) at the level of federal states (Länder). The sickness funds are mandated to provide a wide range of coverages and cannot refuse membership or otherwise discriminate on an actuarial basis. Small numbers of persons are covered by tax-funded government employee insurance or social welfare insurance. Persons with incomes above the prescribed compulsory insurance level may opt into the sickness fund system, which a majority do, or purchase private insurance. Private supplementary insurance to the sickness funds of various sorts is available.

Who would have thought it eh, a system that heavily involves the private sector in a health service, how awful. Surely Germans are crying out for the implementation of the NHS ?

I imagine that the majority of UK citizens have no idea of how other health systems work even in our close neighbours and the fact that private companies (non-profit or profit making) are heavily involved. The level of political discourse is hopeless on this issue, generally coming down to the tired old "public good, private bad" arguments that Labour still can't properly rid itself of.

These differences are eye-opening in some ways, but interesting, and as they say travel broadens the mind. Its a pity that our politicians and general public don't learn some more about how the rest of the world do things, perhaps we would have a less dogmatic discourse in the political and media arena in this country if they did.

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