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The new NHS Bill opens the door to yet more privatisation

The dangers of sliding towards a US-style private insurance healthcare system cannot be overstated, writes CLAUDIA WEBBE MP

LIKE everyone living in Britain, I feel deeply indebted to all healthcare workers, whose dedication has helped us through the pandemic.

I am blown away by the selflessness of those who dedicate their lives and put themselves at risk to help others.

Tragically, according to the Office for National Statistics, more than 850 NHS and care workers have died after exposure to Covid-19, amid a shameful failure to provide them with suitable personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Any reasonable government would ensure that those who have contributed most to our national effort receive a fair compensation for their heroic efforts, including a 15 per cent pay rise. Yet sadly, we do not have a reasonable government. 

Not only is the government’s paltry public-sector pay rise insufficient to make up for years of below-inflation real-terms pay freezes.

But when it claimed to be introducing a public-sector pay rise in July 2020 in recognition of their help in tackling Covid-19, it neglected to include many of the NHS workers who had put their wellbeing on the line to keep our society going over the last year.

In March 2021 the Prime Minister defended a despicable 1 per cent pay rise to NHS staff 

This reveals the fundamental hypocrisy of this government. It does not matter how many government officials applauded NHS staff in front of television cameras if they then refuse to pay them a fair wage.

Even before this crisis, many NHS workers had endured a 20 per cent real-terms pay cut due to the Tories’ cruel, needless, ideologically driven austerity agenda.

A poll by the Royal College of Nursing indicates that many are considering leaving the health service and there are about 40,000 nursing vacancies in England alone.

This staffing crisis is exacerbated by the government’s nonsensical decision to scrap the student bursary, which is putting off many working-class young people who may otherwise have considered becoming one of the next generation of nurses. 

This demonstrates the contempt with which this government holds health workers.

While senior civil servants, National Crime Agency workers and members of the judiciary receive a 2.5 per cent pay bump — which the PCS trade union argues is insufficient and inequitably distributed — our amazing nurses are offered an insulting 1 per cent “increase” which is in fact a real-terms pay cut.

These divide-and-rule tactics are straight out of the Conservative playbook.

We must oppose these attempts to pit sections of the working class against each other. Because by standing together, united, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.

We can no longer live in a society where health workers are underpaid, front-line workers are undervalued, or our NHS is starved of funding. 

Jobs that, before this crisis were wrongly decried by the government as low-skilled are now rightly recognised by the public as essential.

This must be reflected with a significant restructuring of our economy along the lines of justice, with pay rises for those who we clearly cannot live without.

Trade unions, including Unite, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, GMB, Unison and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, have been lobbying the government to bring about a pay rise for NHS staff before the end of the year.

The left must continue to stand in full solidarity with all trade unionists and NHS workers who are calling for the fair and equitable treatment that NHS staff deserve. 

This week, Parliament debates the deeply worrying Health and Care Bill.

Sir David Nicholson, former chief executive of NHS England, has warned that the government’s impending shake-up of the NHS could prompt a lot of staff who are already exhausted by Covid-19 to quit.

This will have a devastating impact on the more than five million people who are currently on England’s NHS waiting list.

The Bill fails on every conceivable level. It introduces an increased rationing of healthcare, with a specific limit on the amount of money available for NHS services within an integrated care systems area.

This budget hawkism risks people being forced to go without the treatment they need or else having to pay for it.

On top of this, the Health and Care Bill also puts vulnerable patients at risk by making it easier to discharge them before they have been assessed.

This is the worst possible way to address the bed shortage crisis that is of the government’s own making.

The legislation also makes virtually no mention of social care, despite Boris Johnson promising in his very first speech as prime minister that his government would “fix the crisis in social care once and for all, with a clear plan that we have prepared.” 

Yet his government has remained silent on one of the most pressing issues of our time, with older and vulnerable people across the country suffering from a fragmented and underfunded care system.

Perhaps most worrying of all is that the Bill enshrines profit-seeking companies at the heart of our NHS.

In its current form, private companies will be able to sit on integrated care systems’ boards, where they will be given decision-making powers over people’s care and how NHS money is spent.

The new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, will need to be constantly reminded that he does not represent his former employers at JP Morgan or any billionaires who wish to sell our NHS to the highest bidder. He is now the health secretary, the custodian of our health service that was built by the working class.

The NHS is a gleaming beacon of human achievement, the embodiment of socialist, universal principles in which everyone — no matter their position in society — benefits equally.

Since the disastrous 2012 Health and Social Care Act, NHS outsourcing and privatisation has been incentivised.

Clinical commissioning groups are under pressure to outsource and, in 2015, private firms won 40 per cent of all contracts.

In the last five years alone, private companies were handed £15 billion worth of NHS contracts. Some 18 per cent of healthcare bids now go to private providers.

The Health and Care bill does nothing to address the cronyism witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic with contracts handed to unaccountable private providers without the necessary transparency or scrutiny. 

In many cases the NHS logo is co-opted by private providers such as with the disastrous, so-called ‘NHS Test and Trace’, handed £37 billion of NHS Covid-19 funds and which is predominantly run by Serco. Yet the direction of travel under this government has been towards a fragmented, underfunded and increasingly privatised healthcare system. It’s a rotten system when Serco’s CEO is paid a staggering £4.9 million, yet nurses who risked their lives to save others are only worth a mere 1% pay rise – or real terms pay cut.

The dangers of sliding towards a US-style private insurance healthcare system cannot be overstated.

Research by The Commonwealth Fund in 2018 found that nearly half of working-age Americans, a staggering 87 million people, were either underinsured or had no coverage at all.

Rather than spending money on doctors, nurses, mental health specialists, dentists and other professionals who provide services to people and improve their lives, the US wastes hundreds of billions of dollars a year on profiteering, huge executive compensation packages and outrageous administrative costs. 

Despite widespread myths regarding the efficiency of the “free” market, the US state spends nearly double what we spend on healthcare for generally worse healthcare results.

It is common sense that, in services essential to human life, profiteering and corporate greed should be off-limits.

It is up to all us who value healthcare as a human right to protect our most treasured public institution. 

Rather than downgrading hospitals, including the Leicester General in my constituency, and extending NHS privatisation, the government must properly fund all hospitals in Leicester and across Britain.

We must say, loudly and clearly, that our NHS is not for sale.

Claudia Webbe MP is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East

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