As the NHS approaches its 70th birthday on July 5, there is plenty for us to celebrate and defend.
Despite 30 years of repeated attempts by Westminster government “reforms” to fragment and distort it, and to divert a growing share of the NHS budget into the coffers of profit-seeking private companies, it remains at core what it was in 1948: the world’s first universal, publicly-funded health care system, delivering care on the basis of clinical need, not ability to pay.
It employs over 1 million well-trained, dedicated staff who daily show their commitment to the values of the NHS as a public service.
And, despite widespread misconceptions that those rich enough can buy themselves an equivalent service privately, the NHS is the only provider of emergency and trauma care, the provider of the vast majority of all forms of elective treatment, and the only service that does not pick and choose its patients.
The tiny private sector, with its tiny hospitals (average size 50 beds) are only interested in simple elective operations – and depend for their existence on the NHS training staff, filling empty private beds with NHS-funded patients, and providing intensive care and treatment of complex cases.
Of course the NHS, and the quality of care it can deliver, has been damaged by eight years of effectively frozen funding since 2010.
Before that governments led by Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown had inflicted a succession of ideologically driven policies that have done serious damage.
They split the NHS into “purchasers” and “providers,” broke it up into competing units and piecemeal contracts, privatised some support services (cleaning, catering etc) and then some clinical care (scans, pathology, elective operations), maximising the openings for grasping private companies at home and abroad
From the mid 1990s they privatised the provision of capital through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) – building new hospitals at ruinously inflated costs that are now a massive burden on hospital trusts.
Deliberate under-funding of the NHS since 2010 – after a decade of investment had brought massive improvement – has brought predictable problems:
- performance on all fronts has been falling,
- capacity (beds, staff, equipment) have been reduced to well below equivalent health services elsewhere,
- staffing levels in many trusts are now reduced to levels that run high risks of service failure, staff pay was frozen for years, with the recent agreed increases still not enough to restore living standards
- training of new staff has been hit by scrapping bursaries, while recruitment from the EU and overseas has been undermined by Brexit and immigration laws.
- and the NHS itself in England has been repeatedly reorganised, top-down, into more secretive, unaccountable units.
Nor is it at all reassuring now to hear Theresa May, whose party and government have repeatedly lied and deceived the public on the levels of funding they were providing, put forward an inadequate ‘long term funding plan’ – with no clear statement of how it will be financed, and the likelihood it could rely on regressive taxation through National Insurance.
But the fact May has to pose as a supporter of the NHS, the fact that privatisation has been restricted in scope and many local plans for cuts in service have been blocked or delayed for years at a time indicates that campaigners are having an impact: if we fight we can win.
It’s partly because of the giant protest on March 4 last year, called and organised by Health Campaigns Together and People’s Assembly, that May could not secure the majority that would have let her pass new legislation for even more “reforms”.
We banged the same message home again on February 3 with a massive day of action including a 60,000-strong march in London and local protests in 55 centres across England, with support in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
So it’s important we build a massive show of strength on June 30 in London – to celebrate and defend a service many of us literally can’t live without. Forcing back the attacks of the Westminster government in England is also vital for ensuring adequate funding for the NHS throughout the UK.
Let’s step up the fight in every area to ensure the NHS can look forward to at least another 70 years, and more! We urge every local organisation fighting for the future of the NHS to affiliate and work with Health Campaigns Together – www.healthcampaignstogether.com