Keep Our NHS Public has been one of the most used slogans for years as unions, patient groups and politicians campaign to end the privatisation of health services.
Rallies and protests are regularly held across the UK, attracting thousands of supporters, while Labour constantly attacks the way contracts are handed to private firms.
But as the NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, it’s clear the government will not change the relentless move away from public provision, with the Prime Minister even telling the Commons that private investment in the NHS should be celebrated.
Looking at the almost daily headlines warning of lengthening waiting lists, a shortage of nurses and doctors, hospital bed occupancy at record levels, patients treated in ambulances or corridors, forced to move surgeries, underfunding and cuts, it’s difficult to see what can be celebrated.
Labour has pledged to put the pieces of a ‘broken’ NHS back together.
Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said privatisation of the NHS has more than doubled since 2010, adding, “The Conservatives are privatising our NHS by stealth despite the repeated failures and costs of private provision.
“Privatisation fails our most valued national institution: the NHS. It saddles us with an expensive and unnecessary internal market. It puts tax avoidance, not patient care, at the heart of its management.
“It also promotes excessive boardroom pay and grotesque inequality. Health privateers are earning huge sums at taxpayers’ expense, while health workers have faced a pay freeze. When health services are privatised, the brakes come off the pay of the executives in charge,” he said.
The 1 per cent annual pay cap for health workers has finally ended, but debate is raging about funding, with the influential Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting that taxes should increase to help ease the growing pressures caused by a rapidly increasing older population, rises in chronic health problems and more expensive drugs.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail says the model of privatising NHS services is broken.
She told uniteWORKS, “The Conservatives’ claim that the NHS was safe in their hands was just empty rhetoric. The celebrations to mark the 70th birthday will show the government what people really think about the NHS.
“Despite all the cuts, reforms and broken promises, it is still a world class, efficient, cost effective service, resilient to everything the government has thrown at it.”
Gail highlights the abolition of nursing bursaries in England at a time when the service is on a staffing ‘cliff edge’ as an example of the ‘complete hash’ the government is making of looking after the NHS.
She added, “The ever growing privatisation of services in health and social care is like spaghetti soup – people just cannot understand what is happening.”
Unite London regional Officer Ruth Hydon knows what privatisation means – worse pay and conditions for already low paid staff.
The jobs of porters, cleaners, security and other staff at hospitals in East London run by Barts NHS Trust has been outsourced to private firm Serco, so they have missed out on the deal negotiated by Unite and other unions to end years of pay caps.
“Outsourcing has taken away their power because they don’t have the collective backing of being in the NHS,” said Ruth.
“They are at the mercy of profit-making companies, who make money by ‘squeezing’ workers’ pay and conditions, such as cutting down on the amount of time to clean hospital wards.”
Unite has now tabled a claim for a similar rise for Barts workers to the national deal, but having to negotiate on pay with a private company after months of talks to break the government-impose wage cap, shows the barriers facing unions because of privatisation.
Barts workers went on strike last year over pay, saying their real living standards have dropped, and have taken action to re-instate their tea break.
Maintenance workers such as electricians, plumbers and fitters have also taken industrial action recently to fight the threat of being outsourced to a wholly owned subsidiary.
Staff at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust in North West England fear they will be vulnerable to cuts in their pay and terms and conditions.
Critics say it is one of a growing number of wholly owned subsidiaries used to sell of the NHS by the backdoor in England.
Unite regional officer Keith Hutson warned of creating a two tier workforce if the controversial move goes ahead.
“The workers want their NHS jobs to stay in the NHS, not to be privatised by transferring them to a subsidiary company. We will not stand by and watch this happen.” Unite is also refusing to stand by without fighting the government’s NHS Sustainability & Transformation Plan (STPs) – or Slash, Trash & Privatise programme – which officials warn has the potential to change the NHS beyond recognition, with no consultation of patients or staff, driven by £22bn of cuts, resulting in massive centralisation of services.
As well as workers wanting to stay in the NHS, Unite points to the spectacular collapse of engineering giant Carillion as proof of the failure of privatising services, as well as a recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) criticising NHS services provided by outsourcing firm Capita to GPs, dentists, opticians and pharmacists.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, asks, “How many more reports are needed to reinforce the case that the privatisation of NHS services short changes patients in particular and the taxpayer in general?
“The scathing (recent) NAO report once more highlights the folly of privatising NHS services where the profit motive trumps patient care – the time has come for the government to say ‘enough is enough’.”
The only hope of ending the Tory privatisation agenda is for Labour to win the next general election and reverse years of underfunding, cuts and contracts going to private providers – giving a proper cause to celebrate the next NHS anniversary.
This feature first appeared in Unite Works magazine, Summer 2018