LABOUR ministers are boasting that the projected £983m under-spend in the National Health Service are evidence that it has regained its ‘financial footing’.
Health Secretary Alan Johnson said that these efficiency gains would free up resources to tackle ‘hospital bugs and improve access to local doctors’. NHS service changes ‘are driven by the need to save lives, not money’, he declared.
Hundreds of thousands of patients and thousands of doctors and nurses will regard these remarks as cynical spin.
Up and down the country local communities have been forced to take to the streets to protest at the threatened closure of accident and emergency (A&E), maternity and paediatric departments, and to save their district general hospitals.
Health workers’ unions, like UNISON, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the doctors’ British Medical Association (BMA), all pointed out that the underspend had been achieved at the cost of patient care, jobs and staff pay.
Mike Jackson of UNISON said there had been ‘unnecessary heartache’, because ‘staff had a below-inflation pay award staged, more than 20,000 jobs have been lost and in some areas services and training have been reduced’.
Dr Peter Carter of the RCN said: ‘We now have a curious situation where the NHS is forecasting a surplus of nearly a billion pounds, but is unable to find jobs for thousands of newly-qualified nurses . . . At the same time nurses already working on hospital wards and in the community have seen their workloads increase as they are expected to do ever more with even fewer resources.’
Johnson is fooling no one. Everyone knows that hospital-acquired infections are the result of the shortage of skilled nursing staff on the wards and the use of cost-cutting, profit-driven, private cleaning contractors in hospitals.
Primary care has also been cut to the bone, with nurses doing the work of GPs and health assistants taking on the tasks of qualified community nurses, supplemented with ‘Walk-In’ centres and ‘NHS Direct’ call centres.
On the same day Johnson was boasting about the £1bn of NHS ‘savings’, research carried out at Oxford University by Dr Anthony Harnden showed that the NHS reforms, involving cuts and privatisation of primary care, are placing young children at risk.
Harnden said: ‘NHS policy changes may be contributing to problems recognising serious illness in feverish young children.’ He added that the NHS should be offering ‘less telephone advice and more opportunities for prompt assessment by an experienced clinician.’ He simply wants sick children to be seen by a doctor!
People fighting to keep hospitals open will brush aside Brown and Johnson’s spin about the NHS and step up their fight to stop the government ‘re-configuring’ their local hospital out of existence.
They must demand that the NHS trade unions engage in more than a battle of words with the government, because they have not lifted a finger to stop the loss of 20,000 posts, or the cuts and closures.
Nurses, members of UNISON and the RCN, who are overworked and underpaid, are already angry at their phased 2.5 per cent pay rise, that amounts to a pay cut. They are balloting on the pay offer and industrial action.
Union members must demand that all NHS unions and professional associations affiliated to NHSTogether call coordinated strike action, while providing emergency care, to defeat the government, in order to stop the cuts and closures and win decent pay rises.
In every community where the local hospital is threatened with cuts or closure, trade unionists should form a Council of Action to take direct action – pickets, marches, strikes and occupations – to stop the government’s vandalism perpetrated against their hospital.
What is required is a general strike to bring down the Brown government and replace it with a workers’ government that will kick the PFI speculators and private contractors out of the NHS, and fully fund it to ensure that the NHS has properly qualified staff necessary to provide high-quality healthcare.
We call on all trade unionists and NHS campaigners to join the News Line-All Trades Union Alliance lobby of the Trades Union Congress, which set up NHSTogether, and demand it coordinate mass strike action to defend the NHS. (see advert page 1)