MAY AND HUNT announced that this winter the NHS was the best prepared ever – a claim worthy of Trump. As the New Year began, stories of horrendous delays – waits for and in ambulances, patients sitting, standing or lying on trolleys in A&E corridors, long waits for hospital beds and treatment – shocked the nation. Dozens of avoidable deaths resulted. Mental health crises have hit the news and 50,000 elective operations in January were cancelled, adding to the immeasurable misery. NHS staff have done their best – they are holding the NHS together by their exhausted commitment.

Why is government allowing this to happen? There are two linked mainstays of their ideology: firstly, a belief that market competition and privatisation will improve NHS efficiency; secondly, the belief that funding for public services should be cut back and replaced by private finance. Austerity is the method and justification for years of deliberate neglect.

The fallacy of this ideology is demonstrated by the collapse of Carillion: £900m in debt, a £587m hole in pension funds and 20,000 staff and projects costing £1.7bn in contracts at risk. Two new PFI hospitals, Royal Liverpool and Midlands Metropolitan, face an uncertain future. And now Capita is in serious financial trouble.

Notwithstanding the positive investment in the NHS 1999-2009, we must not forget the PFI years of the Blair government and the privatisation it promoted. But current Labour policy has rejected those mistakes. Labour’s re-commitment to the NHS, captured in composite 8 from 2017’s Labour conference, resonates with voters. Government claims to be spending more every year are a deception. Rising health need is predictable – more people, greater complexity of need and of treatments, which society both demands and welcomes. Since 1948, on average the NHS has required 4% more funding every year on top of inflation to keep pace with expanding health needs.

Government-imposed austerity has on average underfunded the NHS by 3% every year since 2010, reaching 30% by 2020. That is why, eight years in, there are more referrals than the NHS can manage, longer waits, more pressure on staff, more complaints, more human error. The NHS is the most cost-effective, democratic and accessible health service of a major economy worldwide.

Government ideology is breaking it. Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs) are being used as a Trojan horse for £26bn of cuts. Visionary claims without evidence that “excellent community-based care” will “reduce the need for district general hospitals by 30%”; plans to centralise hospital services in fewer ‘specialist’ hospitals – to an unnecessary and dangerous extent which will increase health inequality by reducing access: this vision not only lacks an evidence base but is delusional when set alongside the massive cuts that undermine those very community services.

Accountable care organisations (ACOs) are now being trialled under the radar in accountable care systems (ACS). But ACOs are undoubtedly the delivery vehicle for an NHS fragmented into 44-50 management organisations, put out to tender and ripe for further privatisation of management, financing and procurement of NHS services. Strict cost control limits will add impetus to diverting patients who can afford it into paying for treatment in the private sector. Hunt faces a judicial review on this.

Most hospital clinical care is still in public NHS hands. But many are unaware of the inroads privatisation has made, in PFI builds, catering, cleaning, portering, pathology, radiology and significant swathes of community healthcare. Virgin Care holds £2bn worth of 400 contracts and last financial year won £1bn of new contracts. Only 34% of tendered clinical contracts last year went to the NHS. The government has given £11bn of our current annual clinical budget to private companies.

And it has chosen where not to spend – with dramatic impact.

Evidenced by this winter’s chaos, far too many beds, 15,000 in total, have been lost since 2010 – 8,000 in acute care, and in mental health (25% lost) and learning disability, 7,000 combined. Comparable European economies spend far more than the UK, which has fewer beds per 1,000 (2.3 in England, 4 in Scotland, 8 in Germany), fewer doctors per 1,000 than the OECD average (2.8 compared to 3.3) and fewer nurses per 1,000 (8.2 : 8.9). Germany has close to twice as many doctors. We have 40,000 nurse vacancies -100,000 across all NHS staff – which explains why £3bn is spent on agency staff and why permanent staff are exhausted.

Some 120,000 excess deaths have occurred since austerity cut into essential health and social care services. Avon’s coroner concluded that the death of a 15-year old girl in September was the consequence of neglect due to the lack of resources of local community mental health services to support her.

A healthy well-educated childhood population makes for a healthy country. Research shows that state investment in healthcare gives a fourfold payback to the economy. The wellbeing of our children and adults is paramount: people are dying as a result of waits for critical mental and physical healthcare, bearing in mind that three-quarters of enduring mental health problems first present before age 18.

Keep Our NHS Public campaigns to defend our NHS, challenging government, using all means available. We reached out to other organisations and set up Health Campaigns Together (HCT) in 2015, building with the People’s Assembly for the 2017 demonstration and the NHS Roadshow during the June election. Our Emergency Day of Action on 3rd February held the government to account this winter with 60,000 marching in London and 50 events across the UK.

Our demands are: more beds, more staff, fund our NHS; no cuts, no closures, end privatisation; health and personal social care must be free at the point of use and, as in Scotland, not means-tested.

Campaigners have reversed plans for bed closures; hospital mergers have been slowed or prevented; STPs have been challenged; judicial reviews have forced concessions on ACO scrutiny. But Labour in local government must adopt national policy and oppose the undemocratic ACOs and cuts to health and social care, and come out fighting for our NHS before it’s too late.

» Please consider affiliation. www.keepournhspublic.com www.healthcampaignstogether.com » Tony O’Sullivan is co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public and member of Health Campaigns Together.

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