England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Seventy-two years old – and extremely vulnerable: Defend our NHS

The crisis which has gripped the whole of society in this pandemic has been starkly ‘played out’ in our NHS and Social Care system. The UK has one of the highest death tolls in the world whatever index is used. There have been well over 43,000 recorded deaths but the more accurate figure measuring excess deaths is now over 60,000! The deliberate underfunding of the NHS over the last decade, accompanied by the appalling mishandling of this crisis has produced this unprecedented tragedy.

At the same time, we have seen huge public support for all frontline workers and a determination to ensure that the staff are recognised for the huge sacrifices they have made. We cannot afford to let our NHS and Social Care system remain as they are. Urgent and determined change is required but that will not happen without massive public pressure, in the form of protests, strikes, demonstrations and mass campaigns.

That is why Health Campaigns Together and Keep Our NHS Public are calling for a huge mobilisation for the 72nd Anniversary of the NHS over the weekend of 4/5th July. Local protests are being called all over the country, many outside hospitals, to kickstart a national campaign for a transformed NHS. Called under the heading ‘Our NHS Deserves Better’, the protests will be followed by a huge national online rally to launch a manifesto outlining the changes necessary to improve public health in this country. Socialist Alternative is fully involved in helping to organise and build for this event and sees this initiative as the start of a serious and sustained campaign to roll back deliberate closures, cuts and privatisation in our NHS and social care for decades.

How Did We Get in this Mess?

Successive previous governments, under Blair, Brown, Cameron, May and now Johnson, have systematically undermined and underfunded our NHS. Social Care was privatised in the late 90’s by a Labour Government; Blair broke up a national service by bringing in local Trusts to run healthcare using an internal market mechanism; the onset of austerity saw huge cuts to staffing, buildings and services and finally in 2012, the Health and Social Care Act has led for the break-up and gradual privatisation of the NHS.

All these measures created an unprecedented crisis in the NHS long before the pandemic with the loss of up to 30,000 hospital beds, 100,000 staff shortages, at least 5,000 fewer GP’s and a speeding up of hospital closures or downgrades. Cuts to council budgets witnessed a near collapse of local and community services, felt most acutely amongst the elderly and most vulnerable. As part of May’s racist ‘hostile environment’ they also brought in migrant charges and the immigrant health surcharge for treatment.

There could not have been a worse way to prepare for Covid-19. In 2016, the Dept of Health ran its own ‘drill’, codenamed Operation Cygnus, to examine their preparedness for a flu-like pandemic which warned that NHS and Social Care did not have sufficient capacity to cope in almost every area. Their report and warnings were buried and ignored; thousands have paid for this neglect with their lives.

Johnson’s Blunders

Socialist Alternative has accused this government of having blood on its hands. Despite early warnings in January that the new, deadly virus was on its way, the British government did nothing in February, and failed to prepare or take any action until too late. There were complacent assurances in mid-March about preparations and supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) which swiftly proved to be false: there were neither adequate supplies nor a viable supply chain, and shortages reached crisis levels throughout the NHS and care sector – leading to the huge loss of life across the whole community.

These blunders were compounded by NHS England’s advice to hospitals to discharge their elderly patients to care homes which created a second wave of the pandemic amongst the most vulnerable and frail in society and put care staff under huge strain without any adequate protection.

Prof. Ferguson, one of their chief scientists, who warned the government of the urgent necessity to lock down on 17th March to save 250,000 deaths, has now announced that an earlier lockdown, by even a week, would have halved the death toll. Lack of PPE in care homes and the NHS has led to hundreds more deaths. Scandalously, of the 300 or so deaths in the NHS, almost 90% have been from a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background. The shortage of NHS beds led to hospitals being overwhelmed; staff shortages have put untold stress on existing staff who may never recover.

The government’s panicked measures saw £220 million spent on unused Nightingale Hospitals whilst 40% of hospital beds outside the ‘red’ covid-19 zones went unoccupied. Care homes have had to spend £7billion on PPE and extra staffing and have got back £1.3 bn from the government. The failing track and trace system, along with the testing centres, have been put in the hands of incompetent private sector firms like Deloitte, Serco, Sodexo, Palantir, Amazon and Microsoft, while depleted public health services are expected to ensure the infected self-isolate. Having assured the public that the government was being ‘led’ by the science, following the farce of the Cummings scandal they are now being ‘guided’ by the science and several advisors have disappeared from the briefings. The failure to resource a safe return to school has led to a collapse of their planned reopening of primary schools by June.

The contradictory and muddled lifting of the lockdown will almost inevitably lead to a second spike, yet the daily death toll remains the highest in Europe. Johnson has lost public support and his administration lurches from one expedient to the next. As a result, we will witness many more unnecessary deaths and a long-drawn-out emergence from lockdown.

The 72nd Anniversary of the NHS must be the beginning of a mass movement which must build and intensify towards a much bigger mobilisation, socially distanced if necessary, in September around the State Opening of Parliament. We will not and cannot rest until we see the back of a government which has callously put profit before people’s lives, health and needs.

Build a Public Health and Social Care System

In this movement, Socialist Alternative will be demanding:

  • Rebuild and Fund the NHS! Halt all closures, downgrades and the sell-off of NHS buildings and assets. The NHS requires an immediate injection of billions to bring NHS spending up to at least the European average of 13% of GDP
  • Kick Out the Private Sector! The NHS should be re-nationalised and all private sector debts written off. All staff to be returned to NHS employment and all private sector hospitals to be returned to the NHS
  • Healthcare for All! Scrap all racist immigrant health surcharges
  • Nationalise Social Care! Bring back all Social Care under public control and accountability
  • Proper Pay for all staff! For an immediate decent pay rise for staff and to bring ALL Social Care staff under the same pay and conditions with the NHS. Bring back the Nurses Bursary.
  • No backdoor NHS trade deals
  • For an immediate proper public enquiry into the crisis, led by the unions and workers involved, with powers to act & immediate action around the disproportionate deaths in the BAME community
  • Nationalise the big drug companies under workers’ control and management
  • For a fully democratised and accountable NHS and Social Care System which caters for all our health needs

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