When Aneurin Bevan, chief architect of the NHS, said, “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it,” perhaps he had a premonition of the state the service would be in two generations hence.
The NHS is at a crossroads — its very existence now hanging in the balance depending on who’s got the keys to 10 Downing Street come May 8.
But don’t just take our word for it. That the NHS is under grave danger is an idea that’s most accepted by those who know the health service and its patients most intimately –NHS staff.
Ian Evans, a biomedical scientist at Brighton and Sussex Hospitals University NHS Trust, has been working in the service for almost two decades and has noticed a stark difference in the way the NHS has been run since the coalition government took over in 2010.
“We’re expected to do a lot more for a lot less in many ways,” he said. “There’s been a gradual expansion on the goodwill we provide. I joined in 1996, when the NHS needed investment and it was invested in.
“Now we are in a situation again, where we need investment but there hasn’t been investment again. For example, our equipment, it’s old, it’s dated. It breaks down on a regular basis. We keep getting ‘thank you’ for staying a few hours later, ‘thank you’ for coming in at night time to sort our machines, which are antiquated and unsafe.”
Evans explained the critical role that pathology services plays for patients, services that have experienced deep cuts in the last five years.
“Pathology services actually provide 80 per cent of diagnostic results which people actually act upon. But we get largely ignored because the political focus is on doctors and nurses. So because we are not political—or at least in the public’s view—we get attacked [by cuts] first.”
Debbie Wilkinson has been a paramedic for the past 25 years and she contends that, over the past five years, “the service has changed more than I’ve ever seen it change before.
“With respect to the cuts, each ambulance service is being expected to make 5 to 6 per cent of cuts over the last three years,” Wilkinson said. “The cuts have come straight out of frontline responses. They could have come from elsewhere, but they come straight out of the frontline.
“What we’ve done is downgrade our 999 response. The idea of bringing more care into the home meant that they wanted us to upscale paramedics to paramedic practitioners and so give them more skills to enable to treat the patients at home and not have to take them into A&E.
“What the reality is that they’ve done the exact opposite of that,” Wilkinson added. “They’ve downgraded the frontline response from a qualified clinician to what we call an emergency care assistant. What used to be a two-year degree course now entails just a few weeks of training.”
Liz McInnes MP for Heywood and Middleton spent her career prior to politics as a senior biochemist, and among the many changes she’s noticed in the NHS since 2010 is the attack on staff pay and terms and conditions.
McInnes believes this attack is a deliberate one.
“It’s all part of the Tory ideology of privatisation,” she said. “If you attack workers’ pay and conditions, it makes it much easier to privatise something. And that’s exactly what they are planning to do.
“The future for us is quite scary”
All the health workers UniteLive spoke to agreed on one point – that a Conservative government in May would sound the death knell for the NHS as we know it.
Adrian Atterbury, another biomedical scientist at Brighton and Sussex Hospitals University Trust, argues that he wouldn’t be surprised if everything he does were to become privatised.
Atterbury cited NHS privatisation disasters such as Hinchingbrooke, saying that another five years of the Tories’ slash-and-privatise agenda would be disastrous.
“At the moment, when you have a private company doing what we do, they either become so efficient that they can no longer do their jobs properly, or the service they’re running no longer becomes profitable so they pull out altogether, knowing that the NHS is still there to pick up the pieces,” he said. “If we become a private company, then there is no one, once we’re gone. There’s nothing to fall back on.”
Evans expressed serious concern over the prospect of another five years of Tory rule.
“Even though we [the NHS] provides a better service [than the private sector], better quality assurance and even a faster turnaround, it’s all about the money, it’s all about the pounds and pence,” Evans said. “The future for us quite scary.”
This was a view shared by McInnes.
“If the Tories win in May, the NHS will be lead down the road of irreversible privatisation,” she said. “I really don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said that a Tory government would turn the NHS into nothing more than a brand.
“It would mean eventually requiring people to pay for health. It would mean private health insurance companies – and it would mean total destruction of the NHS.”
Labour government hopes
Atterbury was hopeful that an incoming Labour government will save the NHS from the brink of untrammelled privatisation. And he had one message for them:
“Tell us what needs to be achieved and let us get on with it and achieve it,” he said. “Stop having people who are too far away from the day to day of the job making all the decisions for us. It’s a huge waste of time and it’s a huge, huge waste of money.”
Evans said that a Labour government would need to have a long-term plan for the NHS as well.
“We can’t just think of the next five years,” he said. “A large number of disciplines, it can take 13 to 18 years to get the very best, which we do provide. But the investment has to be there, the training has to be there, and the commitment has to be there. The key thing is that the NHS has to be provided by the NHS.”
McInnes said the key to an NHS protected from private interests is getting rid of the health and social care act, something that Labour has specifically committed to in its manifesto.
“The act very bizarrely withdrew the health secretary’s duty to provide for a comprehensive health service to all, a duty that’s been in place since 1948,” she explained.
“A Labour government would reinstate this duty,” McInnes added. “Labour will also undo the central requirement to tender NHS services that’s embedded in the act. This will attack the very core of the problem that the Tories have created.”
To read more about how the Tories have wreaked havoc on the NHS, get all the verified facts and figures here.