AS THE National Health Service turns 75, the words of its founder Nye Bevan will be on many lips: that it will last “as long as there’s folk left with faith to fight for it.”
His call to arms is answered year after year by communities fighting hospital closures and by a workforce committed to the principle of care according to need, not ability to pay.
Even Thatcher’s chancellor Nigel Lawson said the NHS was the closest thing this country had to a religion.
Arch-privatiser Lawson was referring to the difficulty of selling NHS privatisation to the public. All parties must pay lip service to defending the NHS.
As with other religions, though, a show of outward piety can be deceptive.
Today the NHS is in a deep crisis. Its millions-long waiting list condemns patients to seriously delayed treatments, often painfully, sometimes dangerously. Its hospitals are so overloaded ambulances line up outside, waiting hours to discharge patients.
Those who can afford it are going private: the number paying for private hospital treatment has risen by nearly a third since 2019.
This raises demand for trained medical workers in the private sector, with reports earlier this year that doctors were being offered £5,000 to recruit NHS colleagues to undertake private work, accelerating a vicious cycle in resource competition when the NHS already carries over 100,000 vacancies.
The logic is towards a two-tier healthcare system in which those who can pay get faster treatment while the “universal” health service is reduced through under-resourcing to basic cover for the poor.
Preventing this means challenging the two main drivers of NHS decline: underinvestment and privatisation.
Tory and Labour politicians both imply that the NHS is a costly anachronism: shadow health secretary Wes Streeting’s claim that we “cannot keep pouring money into a 20th century model of care” has become notorious.
It’s important to keep challenging that lie: Britain spends significantly less per head on healthcare than its European neighbours, a fifth less than France, and a quarter less than Germany.
Usually, the idea that the NHS is unaffordable in its traditional form is tied to demographic changes, particularly an ageing society. But such shifts require investment, not resignation to a worsening service.
Corporate profits have risen as a share of the national product since the 1970s, as wages have shrunk. We must not accept the idea that the resources to properly fund high-quality services do not exist: they are being stolen from us.
Since Tony Blair first introduced private provision within the NHS, the service itself has become a lucrative source of private profit. Extortionate PFI contracts, state collusion with big pharma over drug prices and reliance on private providers all waste NHS money.
The last risks turning our health service into a commissioner rather than a provider of services, a brand name that masks a for-profit health system.
That betrayal of Bevan’s vision is the current prospectus from both Tories and Labour. Saving the NHS means building a mass campaign for real solutions to its twin crises: a serious increase in investment, and an end to all private-sector involvement.
Both enjoy widespread support. Transforming them into political reality means focused campaigning: support for all NHS workers in dispute, and use of any win secured by one section of the workforce to demand it for others.
Building up local campaigns, not just in defence of services but in solidarity with outsourced workers demanding parity with in-house workers, like the ISS cleaners organised by GMB challenging South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Politicians of all parties can feel the heat from such campaigns.
With Westminster united against us, the future of our NHS has to be secured from below. In this year of unprecedented industrial action across the service, though, we have one thing on our side: folk still have the faith to fight for it.
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