'Trojan Horse' for more NHS privatisation?

Unite national officer Jackie Williams: Plans to ditch Cameron-era NHS reforms must not lead to more privatisation

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The government’s plans to jettison the ‘reforms’ of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, which apply to England-only, must not become a Trojan Horse that sees the private sector set for growth, treating patients and staff as commodities with a keen eye on profit.

If the terrible toll that Covid-19 has taken has taught us anything, it is that when the country was facing its biggest crisis since World War Two, the NHS ‘family’ held the line and gave us that sense of hope, via the vaccination programme, that there is welcome light at the end of the very dark tunnel.

That’s why a possible roll-back of NHS privatisation is to be greatly welcomed, although tempered by surprise that this should be coming from a Tory government that over the last decade has starved the public sector, including the NHS, of the necessary funds, and put privatisation and outsourcing on an ideological pedestal.

The coronavirus pandemic has renewed focus on the ‘public or private sector ’ debate – in its starkest terms, the vaccination programme, carried out by NHS doctors and nurses, aided by an army of volunteers, has been an outstanding example of the collective national spirit.

Sadly, the private sector’s ‘track and trace’ system on which £22bn of the hard-pressed taxpayers’ cash has been lavished continues to struggle to live up to Boris Johnson’s boast of early last summer that it would be ‘world-beating’. And the ‘cronyism’ controversy still swirls over the allocation of PPE contracts, leaving health and social care workers at the frontline in a precarious position.

The 2012 Act, the Frankenstein creation of the then health secretary Andrew Lansley, has long been recognised as a disaster; fragmenting services and giving too much sway to the profit-hungry private sector. We must not see this replicated in areas such as biomedical sciences which must be returned to the NHS.

What the pandemic has brought into sharp relief is that there can never be a market for healthcare – you can’t put a price on the care a patient needs from the NHS in times of often desperate need.

You cannot apply the harsh disciplines of the ‘bottom line’ if someone needs vital treatment for cancer or is crying out, literally in pain, for a hip replacement. We must see the necessary investment in mental health services as they will struggle to cope with the aftermath of Covid-19 and a NHS workforce that is in desperate need of care.

The changes announced aim to tackle the bureaucracy and encourage health services from hospitals to GP surgeries and social care to work more closely together. The health and social care secretary, currently Matt Hancock, would also take more direct control over NHS England.

While we welcome aspects that encourage collaboration in the health system in England and greater ministerial control being exercised, it remains to be seen how much of the purchaser- provider split – with its spectre of privatisation – will be removed.

Unite, which has 100,000 members in the health service, will be going through these proposals with a fine toothcomb and will not allow the fundamental principles of the NHS, fashioned in 1948, to be further eroded.

By Jackie Williams, Unite national officer for health

  • This comment first appeared in Public Sector Focus on February 24

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