Medical emergencies are natural but the response to them is not. After decades of funding cuts, privatisations, loss of beds, and critical staffing shortages, our NHS was increasingly unable to cope with seasonal flu and winter admissions. It did not stand a chance against a pandemic.
The government likes to boast that they managed to protect the NHS throughout the pandemic. But the truth is that the NHS only survived because of the enormous, sometimes ultimate, sacrifices made by its workers. It also survived by effectively shutting down large portions of its services so that it could focus on treating Covid-19 infections.
As a result, almost two-thirds of people with common life-threatening conditions, including cancer patients and people with respiratory problems, have been denied care by the NHS. This was an entirely preventable occurrence which flows from years of cost-cutting and planning for minimum need. It is also a time-bomb in public health, storing up huge problems into the future.
But if there are two central lessons to take away from this episode, it is that NHS and care workers are badly paid, badly treated, understaffed, overworked and this needs to change immediately. It also shows the complete inadequacy and dangers of planning for minimum need, with hospitals stretched to near breaking point even in normal times.
Are these lessons being learned by the government and NHS Trusts?
At the early stage of the pandemic in March, cleaning, portering and catering staff at a hospital in Lewisham were forced to walk out because their employer, a private company called ISS, failed to pay them. ISS also failed to provide adequate PPE, even after the first cases of Covid-19 had been admitted. More than 300 NHS and care workers have died from covid-19, often due to inadequate PPE and unsafe working conditions.
On January 8, Merton, Sutton and Surrey Downs Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) began a public consultation on plans worth £500million to reorganise local hospital services, which involve closing A&E and Intensive Care Units at St Helier and Epsom hospitals, downgrading them to district hospitals, and reducing the number of acute beds available across the sites by half.
The consultation was due to close on April 1, but because of the pandemic, campaigners demanded that the consultation be delayed. A not unreasonable request by any means – after all, one of the CCG’s key arguments was that care in the community could make up for the loss in the number of beds and what the pandemic exposed beyond all doubt was that care in the community was already in crisis and that there were not enough hospitals beds
Disgracefully, the CCGs refused to extend the process beyond five days and now continue to work up their plans away from public scrutiny. The same NHS Trust also made headlines in early April when it was revealed that they had run out of body bags due to the number of deaths and, appallingly, porters were instructed to use sheets instead to transport deceased Covid-19 patients.
But this is far from an isolated incident. In Leicester, the local NHS Trust is ploughing ahead with £420million plans to reorganise local hospital services. Again, another hospital will be lost, the Leicester General in this instance. The Trust does not currently plan for an increase in the number of beds, despite the considerable expense and the annual winter crises, arguing instead that crisis-ridden and sometimes non-existent community care will miraculously step in.
A nearby cottage hospital in Lutterworth, Feilding Palmer, was closed in the middle of the pandemic. The local trust had wanted to close the hospital for many years and campaigners immediately raised the alarm. Under pressure, the hospital has since been re-opened and used as an isolation facility for patients recovering from Covid-19.
These problems are unlikely to go away either, as the capitalists once again attempt to make us pay for the crisis through cuts and privatisation. In mid-May, a leaked email from NHS England’s London Regional Director Sir David Sloman, sent out internally on 29 April, revealed a plan to cut jobs and to use the private sector to deal with the massive backlog of elective surgeries. Disgracefully, the changes were proposed to take place behind the back of the public, with “public and stakeholders” only involved “in the process within the constraints of an emergency”!
Socialist Alternative members working in our NHS, care services, and those of us involved in health campaigns, will continue to fight these proposals, but also to demand not just an end to cuts, but the beginning of massive investment, to rebuild our services, with workers in control of planning.