There usually comes a time in the life-time of a long-serving government when there is a light bulb moment which turns out to be terminal for its popularity and electoral prospects.
The mounting evidence of serious allegations of Tory cronyism in relation to the NHS and accelerating pace of health service privatisation could be just one of those moments when the public withdraws its support from a political elite immersed in its own hubris.
It has happened before: John Major’s government never recovered from the perception that it was incompetent in handling the financial impact of Black Wednesday in 1992; Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990 was, in part, due to her obsession with introduction of the so-called ‘poll tax’; and for those with long historical memories Harold MacMillan’s government was forever tarnished by the Profumo affair in 1963, paving the way for Harold Wilson’s election victory the following year.
And so we move to 2021 and the Boris Johnson government, with a seemingly impregnable parliamentary majority of 80 and at least three years before another general election, is mired in a continuing carousel of allegations of sleaze and cronyism, much of it stemming from the way contracts were awarded in the fight against Covid-19.
Health secretary and social care secretary Matt Hancock meeting former premier David Cameron and financier Lex Greensill for a private drink in 2019 to discuss a new payment scheme for the NHS is one example of many that leaves an unsavoury taste in the mouth.
This follows on from the vast sums splashed out in controversial contracts for PPE to those with close links to the Tory establishment and the £37bn spent on the flawed private sector-led ‘test, track and trace’ programme that was heavily criticised by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee which said that the costs were ‘unimaginable’.
The Tories, since they came to power in 2010, have followed a consistent policy of privatising the NHS, starting off with then health secretary Andrew Lansley’s 2012 Health and Social Care Act which turned out to be an expensive administrative disaster for staff and patients.
While NHS staff have worked themselves to the bone in caring for Covid-19 patients and then delivering the successful vaccination programme, Tory politicians have been collaborating in seeing that lucrative NHS contracts are siphoned off to their chums in the private sector.
Reports that Matt Hancock was tardy in declaring his interest in his sister’s company that obtained contracts from the NHS in Wales does nothing to allay public suspicions.
It appears that the government is more interested in boosting the bank balances of the few than the health and welfare of the many.
It is shameful that the government can ‘splash the cash’ when it comes to their ‘friends’ in the private sector, while NHS staff in England are offered a derogatory one per cent pay rise for this year by ministers.
A further example of this privatisation by stealth is the takeover of GP practices by US health insurance giant Centene Corporation.
This led to campaigners, including members of Doctors in Unite (DiU), to stage a recent socially-distanced protest outside Centene’s UK subsidiary Operose that has taken over the privately-owned AT Medics set up in 2004 by six NHS GPs and which runs 37 GP practices across London.
On the surface, ministers and senior NHS executives have constantly repeated the mantra that the NHS is not being privatised.
But beneath the surface, we now have a huge swathe of English general practice, including the data of nearly half a million patients, being handed over to US Centene – with a breath-taking lack of transparency and openness.
Tory politicians roll out the tired old trope that all general practices are private, but this is disingenuous and they know it.
There is a world of difference between a multinational corporation that operates to make a profit, often by cutting staff and services, so that it can pay dividends to shareholders, and local GPs who are very much part of the NHS ‘family’ and provide services from a budget fixed by the Treasury.
Unite, which has 100,000 members in the health service, firmly believes that a culture of Tory cronyism is rapidly enveloping the NHS. So what needs to be done?
Maximum transparency and openness
A good first step is that there is maximum transparency and openness in the NHS procurement policies, and a thorough examination of the personalities involved and their links to government, the civil service and private healthcare companies, so we all know ‘who knows who – and why? Tougher legislation by MPs in these areas is urgent.
There also needs to an ideological sea-change from ministers and their cheer leaders in the media who are obsessed with the privatisation agenda as the only way that public services can be delivered.
The billions in cash dished out to the private sector-lead ‘test and trace’ programme provides ample examples of the flaws in the privatisation model.
This is money that could have been better spent on local council public health programmes led by health and social care professionals who know their communities intimately – and not someone calling up from a remote call centre.
The public needs to wake-up to the fact that the NHS that they so value and which has been the lynchpin of the successful vaccination programme is being steadily and incrementally sold off to profit-hungry healthcare companies. The NHS Support Federation has shown us that the value of NHS clinical contracts being awarded to the private sector is increasing.
Now is a time to draw a line in the sand to preserve and cherish the NHS as an organisation free at the point of delivery to all those in need. If we are not vigilant, these founding principles of the NHS in 1948 will become pale shadows of themselves.
This comment first featured in Public Sector Focus magazine
By Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, Unite national officer for health