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Issue #1601      July 10, 2013

Fight we must and fight we will

BRITAIN: The 65th birthday of the National Health Service (NHS) is a time to celebrate. Despite everything that has been thrown at it by successive governments, the NHS remains the fairest and most cost-effective health service in the world – second to none.

Waiting times are edging up, accident and emergency problems show alarming signs of turning into a full-blown crisis.

The Olympics last year showed how highly the health service is regarded.

Even better, the NHS tops the list of icons that make Britons proudest – ahead of the armed forces and Team GB. When asked which anniversary in 2013 made them most proud to be British, the public put the 65th birthday of the NHS ahead of the Queen’s coronation.

It is only right then that up and down the country Unison has been organising and joining its many supporters in highlighting and celebrating the amazing work performed by the NHS and its staff.

It treats more than 1.5 million patients every single day, 14,000 babies are born each week and more than nine million procedures and interventions performed each year. Every patient is seen on the basis of medical need – not on how much they can pay – and Unison wants to keep it that way.

Last week saw a series of events to not only celebrate the NHS but to raise the profile of the huge threats to the health service posed by the Tories.

This government is systematically and cynically running down the NHS verbally, at the same time as cutting it physically. Pointing an accusing finger at “failing” hospitals, long waiting times and “uncaring” nurses, it creates a vicious circle where the only saviours are private healthcare companies gearing up to “come to the rescue.”

In truth the NHS does need rescuing – but from this government and its damaging policies.

The NHS has come through a period of unprecedented upheaval and uncertainty over the past three years, since the bombshell of the NHS white paper led to the Health and Social Care Act limping through Parliament, followed by a further year of transition up to April this year.

Although the health service and its workforce have, as always, done their best to weather these storms, the NHS has already entered dangerous waters.

Waiting times are edging up, accident and emergency problems show alarming signs of turning into a full-blown crisis with ambulances and patients regularly left queuing outside for hours on end.

And in furthering its privatisation agenda the government could not resist tampering with the successful NHS Direct and introducing a fragmented market of 111 providers, with the inevitable consequences of patient complaints and failures.

The role of healthcare companies is expanding substantially, with a 10 percent increase in NHS money spent in the sector in the past year and analysts predicting a £20 billion “opportunity” for companies through both provision and commissioning.

The government’s botched implementation of the Section 75 procurement regulations has done little to convince clinical commissioners that they will be given the autonomy they crave, which was ostensibly the point of the Tories’ “liberating” reforms. This direction is unlikely to change with the Prime Minister reaching out to right-wing think tanks to staff his own health policy functions.

There is now a need for urgent repeal of the Health and Social Care Act, which has the potential to unravel much of what patients and staff know and love in our NHS.

The N in NHS needs to be reasserted by getting rid of economic regulation, restoring the role of the secretary of state, and insisting on a more rigid cap on private patient income. Winding back the market also means saving money, which is likely to continue to be a big issue for the foreseeable future.

The transaction costs associated with administering the market are eye-watering.

The Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) is the central database for European public-sector tender notices and the average cost of running an OJEU tender process is estimated at a massive £100,000.

To safeguard the NHS for the next 65 years, Unison is also calling for minimum staffing levels to ensure patients and staff are safe. To deliver high-quality patient care the health service must have appropriate funding.

The government has been forced to admit that it’s been misleading the public about claims it is protecting the health budget. The frank truth is that the NHS budget has been cut and hospitals are being told they must make £20 billion in so-called efficiency savings.

This is all at a time when demand on the NHS is increasing – there are more patients, more costly drugs and therapies and an increasingly ageing population, with complex medical needs.

And patients must come before profits, with taxpayers’ money being spent on improving care, not going to enrich the shareholders of private healthcare companies or on employing expensive and unnecessary management consultants.

Protection for staff terms and conditions is another area with knock-on benefits for those receiving care. An increasing body of academic research from the likes of Aston Business School and the National Nursing Research Unit points to a definite link between staff well-being and patients’ experience of care.

With a government determined to destroy the NHS as we know it, is it any wonder that we are fearful it will not make its next important milestone?

And that is why the events organised for the 65th birthday are being used to warn people of the dangers facing our NHS and to rally support for the fight to preserve a health service under threat.

These events will continue over the summer and into the party conference season. At Unison’s own conference a couple of weeks ago I called on the Trade Union Congress to organise a mass rally in support of the NHS at the Conservative Party Conference.

We are already mobilising branches for the lobby in Manchester on September 29. We will be taking our message to the heart of the Tory Party that they mess with the NHS at their peril.

As Nye Bevin the founder of the NHS said, “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it” – fight we must and fight we will.

* Dave Prentis is general secretary of Unison.

Morning Star  

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