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Editorial: The public want a better funded NHS – it's politicians who stand in the way

BRITAIN is worried about the NHS. The latest Social Attitudes Survey shows less than a quarter of the population are satisfied with the health service. That represents a drop of 29 per cent in just three years — the fastest fall ever.

That’s hardly surprising. Waiting lists at over seven million represent months of pain for people waiting on procedures. Seeing a GP in a hurry is all but impossible in many areas. Waiting times in A&E are breaching targets wherever you look.

This suits private healthcare interests down to the ground. 

The number of privatised medical procedures hit a record last year. People who can afford it are going private: people who can’t afford it, the vast majority, are suffering.

The degradation of the NHS, and the consequent pressure for “reform” in the form of ever-greater dependence on for-profit provision, follows a familiar playbook. US academic Noam Chomsky summed it up: “That’s the standard technique of privatisation: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

People are angry about the state of the NHS, but there is certainly no public enthusiasm, or even consent, to increasing the role of private capital.

The NHS’s founder Nye Bevan famously said the NHS would last as long as people had the faith to fight for it. 

They still have faith: the Social Attitudes Survey shows confidence in the NHS model of care remains overwhelming. Over 90 per cent say access to healthcare should be universal, over 80 per cent that it should be free at the point of use and funded by general taxation.

And the public understand that it has been underfunded: 48 per cent say taxes should rise to fund more NHS spending. Just 6 per cent thought taxes should fall at the cost of reduced spending.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting claims we cannot “keep pouring money into a 20th century model of care,” but a study by the Health Foundation in 2022 found Britain spends 18 per cent less per head on healthcare than the EU14 (countries belonging to the EU before 2004), that an extra £40 billion a year would be needed to bring per capita spending up to French levels, or an extra £73bn to match Germany.

The near-identical approach to the service across the big Westminster parties — Tory ex-chancellor Sajid Javid has even spoken up praising Streeting’s “vision” for the NHS, since it too involves outsourcing ever more care to private providers — represents a deadly serious problem.

Unions representing healthcare workers — or indeed people reliant on the NHS, so almost everyone — cannot batten down the hatches and hope for a Labour government. 

Sticking to Tory spending commitments means we will not see proper investment, and while the last Labour government did invest more in our health service, it also introduced private provision and struck private finance initiative infrastructure deals which hospitals are still paying for 20 years later.

These policies must be disowned and reversed. Politicians have a powerful incentive not to: Blair’s health secretary Patricia Hewitt, who let the private sector in, later became a non-executive director at private healthcare firm Bupa. Streeting, even before he has entered office, has taken donations from a hedge fund boss with private healthcare interests.

So we don’t just need faith: we need, as Bevan said, to fight for our NHS. 

Recent months have shown the power of street politics, with popular pressure forcing Britain to back a Gaza ceasefire at the UN.

Devastating local government cuts will ignite local campaigns across the country: it is vital that the labour movement is at the heart of these, and makes the wider national arguments for a fully funded NHS entirely freed from private-sector infestation.

Only direct, sustained pressure from below can save our NHS from the moneyed interests that predominate at Westminster.

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