by Nick Holden
“The government will today announce completion of the NHS’s biggest ever privatisation”, (Guardian 5 September). If the deal goes ahead, £3.7 billion worth of contracts will be transferred from the publicly owned NHS Logistics to German distribution company DHL and its Texas-based partner Novation. The provision of 500,000 product lines need by the NHS, including everything from bandages and syringes to hip implants and ambulances, will be removed from public control and put into the hands of profit-hungry multinational corporations.
The Department of Health claims that the new contract will save the NHS £1 billion a year through “increased efficiency”. With Novation? In the US the company was prosecuted for providing shoddy products in order to cut costs.
Privatisation will mean a worse service for hospitals and patients, and in the long run almost certainly attacks on the workforce’s pay, conditions and rights, despite so-called guarantees. The life-and-death matter of delivering supplies to hospitals, currently undertaken directly by NHS Logistics, will be open to take-over by private delivery companies. And meanwhile the £3 million “value rebate” returned to NHS trusts last year will instead find its way into shareholders’ and directors’ pockets.
However, the government may have a fight on their hands. Following this year’s Unison conference in June, the leadership lifted their block on workers at the five NHS Logistics sites around England balloting for industrial action. That ballot closes on 11 September, and it is vital that we get the biggest possible yes vote for strike action.
NHS Logistics is on the frontline of the war to save the NHS. There are now threats of cuts and privatisation in every hospital, Primary Care Trust and national NHS body. Logistics is just the first item in the gigantic auction the Government announced when it “accidentally” advertised £64 billion worth of NHS services for privatisation in the Official Journal of the European Union. An effective strike by Logistics workers could galvanise existing anti-cuts campaigns; give shape to the mass of so far largely unorganised anger which exists against New Labour’s dismembering of our health service; and prepare the way for other NHS workers to move into dispute against the Government.
Paul Harper, UNISON Branch Secretary at NHS Logistics South in Maidstone, said, “There is lots of anger, but some concerns as members do not want to hurt the NHS. After the Government’s announcement this week members are more determined than ever to strike, and we expect a very high turn-out in the ballot.”
Unfortunately, the Unison leaders still seem determined to prevent serious industrial action from going ahead, even if their tactics have changed.
The long delays in balloting weakened the campaign by giving the Government time to prepare — a move which would have been disastrous if there had not been delays in the outsourcing process too. Unison seems to be relying largely on lobbying Government ministers and MPs. Instead of challenging the Government for putting NHS Logistics at risk in the first place, official Unison materials insist that “the industrial action is to allow staff to have their say, not to cause the NHS disruption” and that hospitals will face “no difficulties as a result of the action”.
NHS bosses and the head of Logistics have circulated a letter to all NHS departments advising them to stock up and citing Unison’s assurance that serious disruption is unlikely.
The only thing that will make the swivel-eyed free market maniacs of New Labour back down is a sustained, all-out strike over several days, long enough that hospitals find they cannot cope — a strike which impacts on the whole of the NHS, and puts our fight on the front page of every newspaper.
We should blame the disruption caused squarely on the Government, and point out that the advocates of privatisation don’t mind affecting services when faced with the choice between quality of provision and making a profit. Our strike action is to prevent the huge-scale chaos that will become possible when NHS Logistics is handed over to the dividend-hunters of DHL and Novation.
One day strikes will not be enough. We do not have time to build up slowly towards more effective action: if we delay, the Government will act, and it will be too late.
Big donations are already coming in from fellow Unison members, to help strikers sustain their dispute. Sustained, confident industrial action will generate the kind of donations necessary to see this through to the end.
We cannot afford to leave this dispute in the hands of the Unison bureaucracy. Members in every NHS Logistics depot should be electing strike committees now, to be prepared for when the ballot result is announced and demanding effective fast and effective strike action. We can win this dispute if we take control of it.
• Send messages of support and donations to NHS Logistics Unison, St Barnabus Close, Allington, Maidstone, Kent, ME16 0LW. Make cheques payable to “Unison — NHS Logistics Dispute”.