This weekend saw hundreds of demonstrations marking the 72nd anniversary of the NHS. A few celebrated its past, a number praised its present, but the most significant ones were those that sought to protect its future.
Were it not for the Covid 19 pandemic, and the magnificent way in which health and care staff have risen to the challenge of a generation, there may have been few if any events to mark this NHS birthday.
Wealth not health
Prior to 1948, your health depended on your wealth. The National Insurance Act of 1911 provided only limited access to a GP and covered only those in work – it did not cover their family.
The foundation of the NHS in 1948, and the securing of the principle that health care would be free at the point of use and available to every citizen from the cradle to the grave, was amongst the most significant social developments of the 20th century in Britain and Northern Ireland. These changes were not given freely, they were won by the struggles of the organised working class.
Neither are safe today
Seven decades later neither that principle nor the institution itself are safe from private enterprise and greed, aided and abetted by free market parties at Stormont and Westminster
Only a few months ago, for the first time in its history, the Royal College of Nursing, had to call on its members to take industrial action to secure pay parity and safe working conditions. Sinn Fein, the DUP and the other executive parties had been denying them both demands for years.
For at last ten years the NHS budgets have been slashed by Tories in Westminster and in Stormont. All seems to be forgotten as the very people responsible for the cuts have been falling over themselves to applaud the nurses they refused to pay.
With less than thirty years to its centenary, and in the wake of its response to Coronavirus, neither capitalism, nor the political parties which support and administer it, will be looking at the NHS and saying ” How can we improve this, how can we make it better , or how can we fund it more effectively?”.
Instead they will endeavour to seek ways of privatising and profiting from public and personal health. They are already drafting plans for even further privatisation of health and social care services, selling off the potentially lucrative areas to the private sector much as they have done with the care of the elderly
Some will celebrate the NHS while forgetting to look up at the circling vultures. The life changing principles gained over seventy years ago have transformed our health and wellbeing and have brought significant benefits to the working class. In the coming period we need to be prepared to defend those principles
We can do that by demanding that the state invests in and grows the service, values NHS staff and protects and advances their terms and conditions of employment and supports innovation and research.
We must collectively and forcefully say ‘Hands Off’ to privatisation and profiteers, to the exploitive pharmaceutical companies, the political parties which facilitate them and ultimately to the economic and social system which places wealth above health.
A publicly funded health and social care service designed to deliver quality outcomes is central to a humane and decent society. Only a socialist society can guarantee that – for this and future generations.