The creation of the NHS was a major gain for working class people which would be there for everyone in a time of need. It has always faced underfunding and cuts, but never before has it faced such an existential crisis as it does today. With a Tory Brexit looming, there is also a real threat of a dodgy trade deal with the US, handing over more NHS contracts to American corporations, such as United Health and Cygnet. This is in spite of earlier promises that the NHS was off the table.
Ultimately, many Tories would like to dismantle the NHS entirely, to go over to an insurance-based system in order to boost the profits of corporations who make money from people being ill. This has been shown by Allyson Pollock, in her book NHS Plc, to be much less efficient than publicly funded healthcare. The American model means huge health inequalities, and the prospect of bankruptcy if you cannot afford to pay for medical treatment.
This January, Boris Johnson had the cheek to claim the NHS was “extremely well prepared” to deal with the crisis. Later, he also pretended that the UK’s track and trace system was “world class” and would be up and running by June, even though Serco, the private company which was handed the £300m contract, was tracing an average of just 2.4 people per contact! Private companies have profited from this crisis with the wholesale privatisation of NHS services, and lucrative public contracts have been served up to loyal Tory donors, regardless of their ability to actually deliver on their promises.
Six months down the line and the government’s “solution”, when faced with the catastrophe of the UK having the highest excess death rate in Europe, is to fiddle the statistics, and shut down Public Health England, rather than acknowledge responsibility for a disaster unfolding under their watch. Public Health England has had a fifth of its budget cut since 2015. Ironically, this organisation seeks to reduce preventable illness, saving the NHS money. According to a report, the poorest have suffered the most as a result of these cuts: “£1 in every £7 cut from public health services has come from England’s ten most deprived communities – compared to just £1 in every £46 in the country’s ten least deprived places”. Once again, the poorest communities in the UK, are suffering the most, living in crowded housing conditions, and being forced to work in unsafe conditions to make ends meet.
Worldwide, the Covid-19 pandemic has made clear who essential workers really are: low-paid cleaners, healthcare workers and shop workers, rather than bosses, financiers and bankers. Health workers have faced years of pay freeze and are rightly demanding wage increases. BAME health workers, in particular have been shown to have faced disproportionately higher risks. We need to demonstrate, fight back and put demands on the trade union leaders for joint action to save the NHS and for the pay that health workers deserve.
It is disgraceful that, even in the middle of the biggest crisis ever faced by our healthcare system, beds are still being cut in NHS hospitals. The Leicester General Hospital is under threat of being downgraded and two-thirds of the land being sold off. Socialist Alternative, along with other health campaigners locally, are campaigning against these incredibly short-sighted cuts. A shortage of suitable beds was the reason for sick patients in NHS hospitals being discharged to care homes, full of extremely vulnerable, elderly people.
A determination to fight back is growing, and there is mass anger against the destruction of our precious NHS. Campaigns and slogans against cuts to local services need to be united across the UK. Socialist Alternative supports Health Campaigns Together, an umbrella organisation, which brings together groups fighting to save desperately needed NHS services across the country.
Hypocritically, Tory ministers are wearing NHS badges and clapping for NHS staff. But they are refusing to reverse any of the effects of austerity. Winter is on its way, with the double whammy of a seasonal ‘flu crisis on top of a threatened second wave of the pandemic. The NHS remains woefully under-funded, and under-prepared, in spite of the heroic efforts of its dedicated staff. Together, we can still save the founding principles of the NHS. Determined action by school students up and down the country has won an important victory, forcing the Tories into a humiliating U-turn on A-level results. Despite Johnson’s bluster, this is a weak government, which can be beaten.
Jac Berry, an intensive care nurse and member of UNISON’s NEC, made an inspirational speech (in a personal capacity) at a recent NHS pay protest, which has been viewed by more than 100,000 people online. She said that, in the likelihood of the government ignoring workers’ demands for a 15% pay rise, national, co-ordinated industrial action should be organised by trade unions across the NHS and the wider public sector, in recognition of the huge sacrifice that ordinary people have made, and the pay-freeze, which since 2010 has meant NHS pay has fallen by 20%. There is huge public support for health workers, and they would have immense backing for strike action – yet, of course, workers in such a critically demanding job face the dilemma of the need for round the clock patient care, while at the same time safeguarding their jobs and fighting for a decent standard of living.
In order to battle Covid-19, hospitals across the UK have had to cancel over 2 million operations, and are now struggling to catch up with demand. This fiasco is not helped by 106,000 vacancies across the NHS; almost a half of which are nursing posts. This is a direct result of the government-imposed austerity measures.
Capitalism is sacrificing the health of workers on the altar of profit. We need to fight back. A socialist society could plan rationally and democratically, to make decisions based on our needs of people, not the needs of the economy. For the sake of future generations, we urgently need to rebuild our NHS. This means kicking out private contractors, ending PFI contracts and the waste and uncertainty of endless rounds of tendering out of NHS services. We need to nationalise the pharmaceutical industry under democratic public ownership and workers control, increase capacity and invest in modern facilities. Private companies have no place in healthcare, which is fundamentally a service, not a commodity. Wealthy shareholders should receive no compensation. Socialist Alternative demands that patients and healthcare professionals should determine how services are run.
One thing that has been sorely lacking is not the will of ordinary people to change things, or the huge respect workers have for NHS staff, but leadership from the political parties and trade union leaders, who are supposed to be standing up for our interests. Keir Starmer has refused to criticise Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, saying “he was doing his best”, and even talked of a unity government. As socialists, we have no unity with the Tories, or with their callous, uncaring system of capitalism. If the so-called leaders of the workers’ movement will not willingly take action, we must build a mass movement which cannot be ignored, demanding that healthcare be publicly funded, and run democratically. We must reclaim lost wages for healthcare workers, and rebuild our NHS. Healthcare will always be under threat from capitalism – this is why we fight for a socialist society where people will come before private profit.
- No to NHS cuts
- Kick out out the privateers
- 15 per cent pay rise for NHS workers now
- For a fully funded, publicly owned and democratically run NHS