|Image via UK Uncut|
The 'Block the Bridge, Block the Bill' action is taking place before the health and social care (read NHS privatisation) bill goes to the House of Lords on 11th October, and is set to be the first mass protest against the selling-off of the NHS, despite the bill having gone through the Commons at the beginning of last month.
On 7th September, MPs in the Commons voted for the end of the NHS as we know it. Yet the coalition’s Health and Social Care bill was not in the Liberal Democrats manifesto. It was not in the Tory manifesto and none of us voted for it.
On the opposite side of Westminter Bridge from the House of Commons is St Thomas’ Hospital, one of Britain’s oldest medical institutions. "If the bill passes, hospitals like St Thomas’ will be sold to private corporations, the staff put on private payrolls and beds given over to private patients," say UK Uncut. "Despite the government’s lies, this bill represents the wholesale privatization of the NHS and, with it, the destruction of the dream of comprehensive healthcare provided equally to all.
"On October 11th, the bill moves to the Lords, and a huge Liberal Democrat rebellion is brewing. We have one last chance to save our NHS."
Although this is the first large-scale act of civil disobedience, that's not to say the bill's had a smooth running so far. In fact, it's been slammed from all directions - and it's not hard to see why. There's yet to be one compelling argument made for the whole-scale organisational changes: they are totally unpopular with the public, they're vehemently and vocally opposed from within the medical establishment and they've got no redeeming features in terms of quality of care or efficiency.
Just a few days ago, the BMA (British Medical Association) again called for the bill to be scrapped, stating their fears that many of the UK's hospitals would close under the new laws.
In a letter to peers, the BMA Chairman of Council, Dr Hamish Meldrum, says that the Bill will “make it harder to create the seamless, efficient care that everyone agrees is key to future sustainability. “
The BMA recognises that some significant amendments have already been made to the Bill in the light of some of its concerns, and that some of the proposals, such as giving more control to clinicians and patients, could create positive change in the health service.
However, Dr Meldrum says, “on balance, the BMA still believes the Bill, as it currently stands, poses an unacceptably high risk to the NHS in England.”
If the Bill passes in its current form, the government would effectively lose responsibility for providing a universal health service. A recent study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine showed that the NHS is the most efficient health service in the world in terms of lives saved per pound.
But performance doesn't matter when a heady mix of money-making potential and neo-con ideology rules. 'The NHS is a sixty year mistake' said Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, speaking on Fox News in 2009. In the same year MP Oliver Letwin warned: 'The NHS will not exist within five years of a Conservative victory'.
That's not to say that the NHS could continue on its merry way as it currently stands given our semi-bust financial position: something had to give. We have a growing, ageing population, absorbing environmental health-harming chemicals over the course of several decades, and selfishly staying alive longer with the help of newly developed expensive drugs. Therefore the demand for - and the cost of - the NHS has risen exponentially.
It's with the NHS is under such pressure, these changes couldn't come at a worse time. The abolition of the current service commissioning bodies, Primary Care Trusts, which the government portrays as useless bureaucracy - will actually rid the organisation of experienced managers at the time when the whole system is being pushed at breakneck speed into total organisational chaos. Chaos might be desirable at a punk gig, but not in a hospital. If the reforms are bulldozed through, there's a real risk of big care failures.
And even if, by magic, the transition to G.P-led commissioning was as smooth as a pre-surgery shave, then the savings probably wouldn't match the hype. Because most G.Ps have no interest in being part of commissioning 'consortia' (even though the word makes them sound all important, like), so it's private companies waiting in the wings to lap up the taxpayer dosh to provide the admin/manegerial support stuff they don't want to do.
Tory Health Minister Andrew Lansley's answer to the cost conundrum, a continuation of Blair and Major before him, is that competition - in the form of outsourcing to the private sector - will make all service providers push down costs as much as possible, so the whole 'universal health care' ideal will be cheaper.
What is missing from the Big Idea is a simple understanding of the capitalist dynamic. To cut costs, several techniques are generally employed. One is cutting wages, and the number of people on the pay roll, as much as you can. No wonder docs and nurses are angry - and should it happen, they'll have one hell of a lot less clout to organise as a workforce for their rights when they've been divided into endless private company employees, rather than organising en masse when they're all directly employed by the government. Another is to decrease the quality of services. And don't forget the loss of a central body to negotiate demand lower supply prices in return for higher volume deals. Outsourcing to the private sector just means they'll do a worse job, using lower resources, but costing the same or more as they improve the health of their shareholders' wallets.
The government has been glossing over the evidence that privatisation tends to result in falling standards and extra costs - like in the US, which has the most inefficient system in the world - while emphasising 'choice' and 'patient empowerment'. But when you need a broken leg plastered or a dose of chemotherapy, not many people complain that they want more 'choice' or 'empowerment' in where they get it from. They just want the first specialist they meet to help them. Yet this flimsy rhetoric constitutes the entire propaganda with which the Tories are trying to smash a cornerstone of the welfare state.
The other motive - private profit - was let slip by Lord Howe when he said the Bill represented "huge opportunities" for private companies.
The private health lobby has been busying worming its way into position to attack our national treasure for years. Back in March, Corporate Watch published a report on the kind of shady characters and mutually-beneficial arrangements that form the backdrop of the NHS reform. To give just a snapshot, Andrew Lansley received funding from the wife of John Nash, former chairman of Care UK, a company that already operates various NHS clinics and treatment centres around the country. Lord Carter, head of the NHS's Competition and Cooperation Panel, is an advisor to Warburg Pincus International Ltd, a private equity firm with 'significant investments' in the healthcare industry.
And are these companies going to at least provide half-decent frontline services, while they skim tax money into shareholder bank accounts? As an example, somewhere between ten and 20 hospitals have been earmarked for takeover by German company Helios.
Earlier this week, the no2tories blog published some interesting info about Helios' operations in Germany: In June, the company's clinics were raided by 150 cops. Why? They were under suspicion of allowing under-qualified assistant doctors to conduct medical investigations, then passing them off as being done by chief medics, for the last three years. Then there's the overall patient satisfaction at Helios hospitals - recorded as averaging 3 out of 6 on public feedback websites, with at least four major clinics scoring a measly two out of six. Then there's the way they've set up private clinics within their public clinics, to side-step statutory charging guidelines and rip off the ill and vulnerable that little bit more.
"It's ironic we have to rely on unelected Lords to save us from this bill but let's hope they destroy it," commented one concerned Lancastrian on Lancaster and Morecambe Against the Cuts Facebook page.
• More info: www.ukuncut.org.uk
• Lancaster and Morecambe Against the Cuts Facebook page
• I remember a pre-NHS Britain: I don't want to see a post-NHS one