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AGAINST the backdrop of the deepest health crisis in decades, the Tories have launched a dangerous NHS Bill. The Health and Care Bill, debated in Parliament this week, should really be called the NHS Corporate Takeover Bill.
This Bill opens the door for private corporations to sit on local health boards which make critical decisions about NHS budgets and services.
It also allows NHS bodies to award contracts to private healthcare providers with even less scrutiny and transparency than they do now.
That opens the door to yet more privatisation and even greater dodgy handouts to the Tories’ corporate mates that have become all too common during the pandemic.
When the priority should be a pay rise for NHS staff, tackling record waiting lists and investment in both NHS and social care the Tories are instead looking at how to continue their stealth privatisation of the NHS.
But as the public overwhelmingly back the NHS being returned fully as a public service, the Bill is being spun as a way of addressing the huge failings of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act that made markets and competition central to the NHS.
Of course, any step away from that disastrous model — delivered by the Tories in alliance with the Liberal Democrats — would be positive.
But there are fears that this Bill is simply a way of entrenching privatisation in a different way.
The Bill doesn’t address the deepest failings of the 2012 reforms. For instance, while dropping the absurd competitive tendering process, the new Bill doesn’t make it a requirement that services are delivered in-house or even that the NHS is a default option for providing healthcare services.
Nor, as Unison points out, does the Bill reverse the measures that permitted NHS hospitals to increase their income from treating private patients from 2 per cent to 49 per cent of their total income.
As doctor-led campaigning organisation EveryDoctor highlighted, that change meant NHS hospitals began to develop private patient units using NHS staff, time, resources and equipment and with NHS patients bumped down the waiting lists. Austerity and underfunding drive the need for such private funding.
The Tories will deny that the latest Bill is about privatisation. But their response to the pandemic shows their real ambitions. What we’ve seen with Test and Trace over the past year is what the Tories want to do to our whole NHS.
There they have handed over billions in funding for a sensitive public health measure to corporate giants while pretending it’s still going to our NHS. Private Test and Trace consultants getting paid thousands of pounds per day while NHS staff are offered a real-terms pay cut.
This stealth privatisation doesn’t just end with Test and Trace. An unbelievable £100bn — that’s one hundred thousand million pounds of public money — has gone to non-NHS providers of healthcare over the last decade alone. Every pound spent on privatised and outsourced services is a pound less spent on our NHS.
Earlier this year, 500,000 patients had their GP services quietly passed into the hands of a US health insurance company Centene whose British subsidiary Operose UK now runs 58 GP practices and is the largest private supplier of GP services in the country.
I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Operose UK’s recently departed CEO Samantha Jones has just begun a role as an expert adviser to Boris Johnson on NHS transformation and social care.
And in a sign of what might be to come across the country with the new NHS Bill, Virgin Care has recently been given a seat on a local NHS decision-making body.
This is not only the wrong Bill but it comes at the wrong time. NHS staff have been through the most intense 18 months in NHS history. The Tory Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned that record waiting lists could even top 13 million with another Covid surge, putting further pressure on the NHS.
Any new Health and Care Bill should be about addressing the decade of Tory health cuts and privatisations that have pushed our greatest institution to the brink.
It should be about addressing the deep staffing crisis through proper pay rises and decent conditions. There are still 40,000 nursing vacancies, an overall shortfall of 85,000 staff in NHS hospitals, mental health services and community providers and over 112,000 vacancies in social care.
It should be about ending the current broken model of social care with a comprehensive National Care Service that is free at the point of use and funded through general taxation. Yet social care is mentioned only in passing in this Bill.
The Tories are privatising our NHS through the backdoor. So we need to step up the fight for the values of our NHS, which are socialism in action.
This week’s parliamentary vote on the new Bill is just the first stage in what needs to be a big battle for our NHS — both inside and outside Parliament.
Richard Burgon is MP for Leeds East.
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