NHS crisis – a long project

Every newspaper headline, news bulletin and radio phone-in programme in recent weeks has declared that the NHS is in meltdown: that the system is broken and is on the verge of collapse.

What is seldom examined is exactly what the crisis is, how it has been caused and why it will continue under the present system.

Many of the stories of ten-hour trolley waits, backed-up ambulances, bed shortages and of an exhausted workforce are truly horrendous. These are the lived experiences of patients, relatives and staff.

But this, ongoing, crisis hasn’t been caused by the doctors, nurses, carers and support staff who are struggling to deliver the service. While there are particular organisational issues locally which are contributing to lengthy waiting lists, our healthcare problems are political and they are systemic.

From the day the NHS was founded, over 70 years ago, right-wing politicians, many of them close to home, have been orchestrating its downfall and planning to capitalise on, and profit from, our collective health and care needs. The plotting has been relentless and only the strong public support for the concept of a health service free to all at the point of delivery has helped fend off the many attacks and treachery.

Despite the esteem in which the NHS is often held world-wide, UK spending on healthcare is lower than in Finland, Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Austria. In fact, it is the second lowest, per head of population, of the world’s large developed economies.

Healthcare expenditure based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is also the second lowest of the large economies.

The current crisis has been brought into sharp focus by the demands of dealing with the Covid pandemic but its roots lie in the last ten years of austerity, the cuts to funding, staffing budgets and building maintenance; outsourcing, blatant privatisation of a public service and pay freezes. This is what many in the media refer to as ‘financial pressures’, as if they were part of the latest weather front

This is what many in the media refer to as ‘financial pressures, as if they were part of the latest weather front.

In parallel, the number of nursing and midwifery training places has been decimated since 2010. That led to staff shortages and they were filled by agency staff, supplied by private companies at a cost, just a few years ago, of over £115 million.

In that same decade, the number of hospital beds in Belfast alone, where most of the regional services are provided, were cut by 20%. This occurred during a period when the number older people over 75 rose by 12%. The cost of providing care for this age group, and above, is around three times higher than for the under fifties., Meanwhile, the health inequalities gap continued to grow and the ill health effects associated with areas of social deprivation added significantly to the problems and the pressures.

These are not just statistics. It is estimated that last year 5,000 people in Northern Ireland died while they were on a hospital waiting list. That is what austerity, attacks on the NHS and privatisation by stealth looks like.

The NHS has been under attack since its inception. Those attacks continue unabated today. A right-wing agenda to privatise the lucrative aspects of healthcare, politically motivated cuts to funding, staffing levels and resources and increasing calls on the service, are combining to make us believe that the very concept of a national health service is no longer viable. The additional ravages of Covid are being used to boost that deception.

The NHS is indeed in a crisis. It is being undermined, underfunded and cherrypicked for privatisation.

We owe it to the generations of front-line workers and support staff who have developed and delivered one of the best healthcare services in the world to defend it and their efforts against those who would sell it off to the highest bidder.

For now, a concerted effort will keep the NHS afloat, but only in a socialist society can it be guaranteed to achieve its full potential.

Stealth and health – the next big battle

There’s a lot we can learn from the treatment of our health and social care staff and the derisory 1% pay award being considered for front line workers.

Without the NHS, and without the professionalism and dedication of its staff, the outcome of the Covid pandemic, horrendous as it has been, would have been much worse.

The work they have done and the results they have achieved, including the outstanding roll out of the vaccination programme, has been acknowledged in popular support and sustained applause.

But despite their rhetoric and the public commitments to supporting the NHS that respect and adulation has not been matched by government actions.

That’s not entirely surprising. From the earliest days of the NHS the Tory party,  in particular, has been committed to undermining and dismantling the health service as we know it, as it has with much of the welfare state initiatives brought in after the second world war.

Sentimentality, it seems, plays no part in strategic projects like privatising healthcare.

You won’t find it in their election manifestos, it wont be admitted publicly, but  privatising the NHS is a policy that sits comfortably with Tory ideology and with the mindsets of many local parties – including those who claim otherwise.

Privatisation by stealth is probably the best description of what is happening and ironically the pressures of the pandemic and the way in which the NHS has responded has left it more vunerable.

Up to £10bn is being made available in England to buy treatment from private providers so that the NHS can clear the backlog of diagnostic tests and treatments that have built up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than half a million people in England now have their primary healthcare provided by private GP consortiums funded by American health insurance companies.

Hiving off NHS services bit by bit to the private sector is creeping privatisation. It is privatisation by stealth.

The second line of threat is equally covert. The longer that waiting lists become, and that is a particular problem in Northern Ireland, the more that people with the means to pay for private healthcare will do so.

Deliberately underfunding the NHS has the effect of accelerating privatisation.

Refusing to recognise the contribution and worth of its staff, by offering a 1% pay award for example, will further demoralise a dedicated workforce and contribute to a potential workforce exodus to better paid and less stressful employment.

Overcoming Covid 19 is a battle that will be won eventually with the help of the NHS and its staff. The battle to save the NHS may prove to be an even bigger task. We should prepare for that now.

Nursing vacancies: an emergency, but no accident

Nurses and Midwives were forced to take industrial action to demand safe staffing levels and the awarding of an overdue pay rise.

The chronic shortage of nurses in Northern Ireland, highlighted by the recent Audit Commission Report, is a clear sign of the failure to invest in nurse education, a failure of workforce planning, but, more ominously, an indicator that privatisation of the NHS comes in many forms‘, Party spokesperson Hugh Scullion has said.

‘The lack of registered nurses employed by the NHS has resulted in payments of almost £115 million to private nursing agencies in 2018/19. In addition to the 2,700 current nursing vacancies a further 1600 registered nurses are needed to ensure safe staffing levels for patients’, said Hugh.

‘For the first time in their unions’ histories members of the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives were forced to take industrial action earlier this year to demand safe staffing levels and the awarding of an overdue pay rise’, explained Hugh

‘Ironically, the same local political parties which had repeatedly withheld the pay increase and precipitated the safe staffing levels crisis were clapping for the NHS and lauding local nurses as heroes only a matter of weeks later, he said

Situations like this don’t simply happen – they are made.

‘It is impossible to ignore the fact that between 2011 and 2018 the EU Commission made 63 demands on member governments to cut spending on healthcare and/or outsource or privatise health services.

‘Taken together with successive local cuts to health and social care budgets, to nurse education funding and a reduction in the number of trainee places available and we have the origins and cause of this crisis’ he said

‘The recruitment of at least 2,700 nurses, to fill the vacancies in hospitals, community settings and in GP practices, must now be underpinned by safeguards such as legislation setting out minimum staffing safety levels for the protection of nurses as well as patients.

‘There must also be a public and trade union led campaign to bring pressure to bear to reverse the privatisation of our health and social care services and their surrender to the private profit sector’, Hugh concluded.

NHS: not safe in private hands

NHS: not safe in private hands

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.

Lucrative profits

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

Circling Vultures

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.