I watched a preview of a film about the radical intellectual Stuart Hall the other day in which he lamented the rolling back of the welfare state. My sentiments entirely, but when the caption appeared on the archive clip I did a double take.
Hall was speaking in 1958 when the welfare state was but in its infancy. Even though his concerns may have been legitimate – after all the Labour government that set it up had been swept aside by the Tories a few years earlier – I doubt even he could have predicted that a few decades later the welfare state would be in its death throes, with its biggest prize yet, the National Health Service, is being auctioned off to greedy privateers.
This was more than brought home to me as I lay in my bed recovering from day surgery at my local hospital. Although the NHS seems to be constantly in the firing line for one reason and another, I felt I had a lot to be grateful for. As an outpatient, my condition had been carefully monitored over the months by the same consultant, I had received many weeks of physiotherapy and hydrotherapy and, when this failed to do the trick, surgery was arranged within a matter of weeks.
All this was available to me free at the point of service. Will this be the case in ten years’ time when, if the government has its way, the NHS will be run by different private firms all seeking to make a profit out of ill health? With remarks being dropped about people being charged to even see their GPs, I very much doubt it.
Many of the recent attacks against the NHS, from long waiting times to lack of proper care, seem to entirely miss the point that it is being starved of funds and staff as a part of a controlled demolition job. The message is, the private sector can do it much better, despite the scandals already piling up concerning already privatised healthcare.
The latest concerns NHS 111, which replaced NHS Direct as the number to call for urgent but non-emergency care in April. Sold to the companies that put in the lowest bid, it is now in crisis after one of the biggest pulled out, citing “financially unsustainable” contracts.
Investigative TV programme Dispatches also exposed major worries about another major provider, where one manager was secretly filmed admitting it was providing an unsafe service. “We don’t have the staff to deal with the calls that are coming in,” he said. Call centre staff were having to make medical decisions because trained clinicians weren’t available.
This is also the same company that provides the out of hours GP service in my neck of the woods. Last November a baby died of pneumonia after his condition was downgraded by staff from urgent to routine and placed in a queue for treatment. Although the coroner said it was impossible to say whether earlier intervention would have prevented the death, he said “wholly inadequate” decisions had been made.
Those already appalled by the sorry record of privatisation over the past 25 years will not be surprised. Be it electricity, prisons or the railways, the service is less efficient and more expensive, both for the “customer” and the taxpayer. Yet there is no let up in the government’s sell off plans. Last week, it announced its single biggest contract ever was up for grabs. Worth up to £1.1bn, it includes end-of-life care for the elderly. As more than a few people have already remarked, whoever wins it will really be making a killing.
For the most part, the media treats NHS privatisation as an unfortunate inevitability of Britain having to live within its means as a result of the “debt”. In other words, we can no longer afford it and shouldn’t even expect it. Scandals such as the above are seen as isolated events, more to do with poor management than free market folly.
The truth is, most mainstream media workers receive private health insurance as part of their perks, so what do they care? It has been left to ordinary members of the public to make their outrage felt – via online pressure group 38 Degrees, protest campaigns like Save the Whittington Hospital, which resulted in managers backing down with plans to sell off half of its north London site, via plans by doctors to stand against NHS sell-off MPs come the next election.
Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of 45 shows us how much has been lost since Labour’s post-war government set up the welfare state to transform Britain. What began as a trickle, as noted by Hall, became a flood thanks to the combined efforts of Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair to dismantle it from 1979 onwards. The NHS is practically the last thing standing. If we continue to remain silent, we will lose that too. Of course, there will still be an NHS, just as the government insists, but it will only be for those who cannot afford to pay for better treatment from private health care providers.