This article was written for Solidarity 427 in January 2017. Next week's Solidarity will feature a piece on the current "winter crisis"
Most days there is a new NHS horror story in the news. The BBC documentary Hospital showed the difficulty many hospitals are facing every day to find beds. In some hospitals even emergency surgery — the so called CEPOD lists — have been cancelled. The Mirror’s front page picture of a child being treated on plastic chairs due to a lack of beds was picked up by Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Prime Minister’s response, along with Jeremy Hunt, was to bury her head in the sand, denying that our problems are abnormal for winter, endlessly repeating the “more doctors” and “£8 billion funding” mantras. Simultaneously, blame is being distributed to others — patients for seeking healthcare, and GPs for not being open out of hours. This is part of a broader attempt by the Tories and press to shift public consciousness, to start conversations about “alternative funding solutions” and “new and innovative means of delivering care”.
All are euphemisms for private funding, co-payments, health insurance and privatisation. The Daily Mail was upfront about it, with the headline “As the NHS crisis deepens, could you afford to go private instead?”. Doctors’ forums are alive with colleagues questioning NHS sustainability and suggesting co-payments to discourage attendance and ease the load, or restricting what is provided on the NHS. This crisis is a deliberatel event.
The Tories want to popularise the idea that the NHS is unsustainable and poor quality. Many will be convinced. Increasingly, those who can afford to will avoid the NHS, and those who cannot or will not will be left with the remnants. General practice, already underfunded and understaffed, has erupted in outrage at the suggestion they are at fault for the crisis, and will face further cuts if they fail to open longer.
Many GPs already work 14-15 hour days. Opening on a Saturday or in evenings requires the loss of a session elsewhere in the week, and there is little evidence that this is desired by patients or produces better outcomes. The deliberate overwork, poor workforce planning and antagonism from the government has led to many retiring or leaving the country. Some fear further attack will precipitate the collapse of primary care. Also rearing its ugly head is the concept of a cross-party commission on the NHS, “removing the NHS from politics”.
Heidi Alexander helpfully quashed this idea last year in her time as Shadow Health Secretary, refusing to accept that questions about the NHS were not political: “it’s about who pays and who benefits”. There can be no consensus with Tories on the idea of public provision and funding of healthcare so any cross-party commission will not be based on those principles. The main proponents are Lib-Dem MP Norman Lamb and former Labour MP and now government functionary Alan Milburn. Both are cheerleaders for privatisation. The commission would be designed to give a veneer of legitimacy to political ideas currently unpalatable to the public.
Many supporters of the idea, particularly NHS staff, come from a good place and need convincing. A good cross-party solution to the crisis in the NHS already exists in the NHS Bill, supported by many MPs and NHS campaign groups. The bill aims to renationalise the NHS and will have a second reading on 24 February 2017. Local campaigns against the “Sustainability and Transformation Plan” service and hospital closures are beginning to get going, often with parochial support from MPs who do not necessarily understand the broader context of NHS destruction.
The Labour Party NHS Campaign day on 21 January will be a good opportunity to talk about the necessary solutions: renationalisation, proper funding, decent employment conditions. We must defend our NHS from the growing political attack on it: socialised healthcare is effective, efficient and capable of providing for all.