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On track to lose our NHS for good?

The bulk of the government’s latest funding announcement is likely to be diverted into the private sector and used in the drive to further fragment the NHS, while prefabricated ‘surgical hubs’ are opened to replace proper local hospitals, warns HELEN O’CONNOR

RISHNI SUNAK’S announcement that £6 billion will be spent on the NHS and Sajid Javid’s promise of a further £8bn in revenue funding might be music to the ears of those suffering pain and distress while waiting for treatment. 

However the signs are that the bulk of this funding will be diverted into the private sector and used in the drive to further fragment the NHS.

Many patients are likely to find that they will still have to wait and increasing numbers will be forced to find methods to pay for private treatment. 

Some 5.7 million people are now waiting for NHS treatment and the list is growing by 100,000 a month. 

Excessive and inhuman NHS waiting times are causing anger and frustration among patients and they are taking this out on staff — with the rates of assaults rising across the country.

NHS England defines waiting times as the period from when a patient is first referred to a service or when they book their first appointment online to when they actually get their appointment. 

During this period, scans, tests etc can be run or symptoms might be treated with medicine or another referral may take place.

We need to be clear that testing or assessment is quite different from treatment and that almost half of the new funding (£2.3 million) is to be spent on testing and diagnostics. 

Another £2.1bn will be spent on technology because “reimagining services” means more appointments will be provided virtually and the option to be seen and assessed face to face will be reduced. 

Risk to patients will escalate because diagnosis and monitoring is more difficult over a computer screen.

It is true that the pandemic response led to sections of the NHS being shut down or repurposed, which has accelerated waiting times for routine procedures. 

However, it’s important to realise that instead of rolling out genuine plans to expand NHS capacity, the government and its cronies running NHS trusts continued to roll out the integrated care system (ICS) programmes that were in place prior to the pandemic. 

The ICS programmes are a code for the cuts which will result from moving, merging and concentrating NHS services across the country.

Four huge NHS trusts in south London merged all of their back-office staff during the pandemic and Epsom and St Helier NHS continued with its plans to build a new, far smaller, facility near the Royal Marsden Hospital which is set to strip out two A&Es and other acute services from two Surrey hospitals.

The government claims that the focus on buildings, equipment and systems is a “game changer” but this “capital investment and spending” is always a top priority for those who control NHS budgets. 

Private companies on “approved lists of providers” then invoice NHS trusts excessive amounts for even the most trivial maintenance work. 

“Commercial sensitivity” is the catch-all phrase to indicate that the books are firmly closed to anyone interested in having a closer look at this NHS expenditure.
 
Hospitals have always traditionally provided testing and treatment, including operations, for the population but in spite of the narrative that an ageing population and Covid-19 have added to the pressure on hospital waiting lists, hospital buildings and land are still being flogged off to the profiteers. 

The public are being short-changed because the government is further fragmenting the NHS by splurging public money on prefabricated “state-of-the-art” one-stop shops and “surgical hubs” while unaccountable NHS trust boards shut down and sell off our large local hospitals for good.

Ongoing pay deflation is causing a recruitment crisis that is highly dangerous for patients, but this has been completely ignored in this Budget. 

The government encouraged the country to clap for the “NHS heroes” while betraying them on health and safety and then insulting them with a 3 per cent pay offer that will ensure staff are driven into further poverty. 

Many staff are now realising that increased pensions contributions and the rate of inflation, currently 4.8 per cent, means that they are getting a pay cut.

Figures produced by the King’s Fund reveal that total NHS expenditure was £130.3bn back in 2018/2019 and 44.9 per cent of total NHS expenditure was on the wage bill. 

When put into proper context, the government spending announcement is a drop in the ocean of what is actually required to ensure that the NHS is sustainable for the future. 

To add insult to injury, not a penny of this money that is earmarked for the NHS is being spent on the staff relied upon to deliver care and treatment. 

State-of-the-art buildings, tech and diagnostics are useless without trained and experienced staff to deliver life-saving care and treatment. 

This Budget will do nothing to reverse the mass exodus of staff from the NHS and the pattern of growing workloads, deskilling and rampant privatisation that is ripping the NHS apart at the seams is set to continue.

This is the reason why the GMB trade union is now planning strike action in the NHS. If we don’t trigger strike action and encourage the workforce within the NHS to fight back, things will get even worse for staff and patients alike and we are on track to lose the NHS for good in the next 10 to 15 years. 

We recognise that the NHS clinical and facilities staff and the ambulance staff, some of who are our members, are absolutely vital to ensuring that patients are safe, protected and receive timely treatment. 

Our members are calling for a 15 per cent restorative pay rise to reverse the tide of pay deflation in the NHS and as we open our legal strike ballot in November we are calling on all sections of the community, the campaign groups and the entire labour and trade union movement to stand in solidarity with our members and support them. 

The fight for fair pay is inextricably linked to the fight against cuts and privatisation — and if we unite we can hold onto the NHS for ourselves and future generations.

Helen O’Connor is Southern Region organiser for GMB.

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