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Editorial: Tory MPs will feel the pressure of Unite's anti-privatisation NHS campaign. This is a fight we can win

“RED wall” Tory MPs will be feeling the pressure at Unite and Your NHS Needs You’s campaign exposing their support for NHS privatisation.

The government might be acting as if the Covid pandemic is over, as Boris Johnson appeases his restive backbenchers with plans to scrap the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive Covid test  — plans that polls show to be opposed by a big majority of the public — and even free Covid tests themselves.

But it isn’t, and two years of an international health emergency have underlined the tremendous damage private provision has already done to the health service — from the chaos, profiteering and procurement delays We Own It exposed in the privatised NHS Supply Chain to the spread of coronavirus caused by contractors failing to provide proper sick pay to outsourced hospital staff.

The Tories are well aware of public opposition to NHS privatisation. That’s why they dressed up their Health & Care Bill as an anti-market measure, one that would remove wasteful tendering processes from the health service.

That subterfuge cannot be allowed to stand: the Health & Care Bill puts private companies in the driving seat through the new integrated care boards. It will allow cuts to medical and emergency services as these boards make decisions on what services to fund, hollowing out public provision to incentivise reliance on private healthcare, as has already happened in dentistry. 

Fixed budget structures for the integrated care systems will hamper efforts to fill the huge number of vacancies that have put enormous pressure on NHS staff and will see the millions-long waiting lists for treatment grow and grow. 

And abolishing tendering processes without abolishing private providers is a recipe for the kind of gross corruption we have seen throughout the pandemic, with ministers’ personal contacts bagging lucrative contracts at our expense.

The context of the pandemic means healthcare is high on the list of public concerns, and an effective campaign against this Bill could have a real impact — Tory MPs will have nervously eyed the party’s humiliating reversal at last autumn’s North Shropshire by-election, where the safest of majorities was swept away, and Boris Johnson’s terrible polling in the wake of revelations about serial lockdown-breaching in Downing Street. 

The defection of Bury South MP Christian Wakeford should not have been accepted by Labour — this poisonous character has a record of support for toxic Tory policies, including the Health & Care Bill — but it does illustrate the panic felt by Conservative MPs as a government elected on the promise that Brexit would reverse decades of underinvestment and industrial decline presides over widening regional inequality and a “levelling-up” strategy that has become a national joke. This Bill can be beaten.

To do so requires a high-profile campaign, however, and Labour, after landing some punches in the earlier stages of the Bill — it forced the Tories to promise that individuals with private health interests would not be allowed seats on integrated care boards back in September — has gone backwards on the crucial issue of opposing privatisation. 

New shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has publicly backed use of private healthcare to deal with the NHS treatment backlog — a misuse of public funds that should be used to plug NHS staffing vacancies — including by awarding health workers the above-inflation pay rise they so richly deserve. Streeting is among the party’s foremost Blairites, and Tony Blair’s government was the first to fling open the health service’s doors to private provision, a legacy that Labour needs to disavow if it is to regain the trust of NHS staff and the public on healthcare.

As in other fields, the Labour Party’s lack of political leadership is seeing trade unions step into the breach. But defeating this Bill requires the union of all our strength. Unite’s campaign deserves support across the political and industrial wings of the movement.
 

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