Trades unions must take action to end NHS privatisation

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‘END this ludicrous, divisive and expensive experiment of the market in healthcare in England.’

This was the call from Dr Hamish Meldrum, the Chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) at the doctors’ union’s Annual Representative Meeting (ARM) in Liverpool yesterday.

He said moves to create polyclinics and PFI (Private Finance Initiative) schemes, which use private money to build hospitals, were draining the National Health Service (NHS) in England of resources and fragmenting care.

NHS funding plans, amounting to about £100bn a year, are in place up to 2011. However, in the following three years £10bn of cuts are expected to overcome the government budget deficit and make good the debt resulting from the billions spent on bailing out the banks.

In response to this situation Meldrum said: ‘The NHS is facing some of the biggest and most serious challenges ever. We need to do everything possible to protect the healthcare budget and not concede that swingeing cuts are either inevitable or necessary.

‘While we should be realistic and not expect inflation-busting pay rises and an infinite expansion in medical power, I can assure you that we are not going to allow doctors to be scapegoats for the failures of the politicians or the bankers.’

This message will, of course, resonate with everyone working in the NHS – doctors, nurses, midwives, medical technical staff, porters, cleaners, maintenance workers and other supporting staff. All patients must be alarmed at this state of affairs.

However, if this message was addressed to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Health Secretary Andy Burnham, it fell on deaf ears.

The government is actually expanding privatisation by giving cancer patients the right to go to private hospitals if the NHS cannot see them within two weeks and these private hospitals will be paid with scarce NHS funds. In addition, so-called ‘co-payments’, or top-up charges, for NHS treatment are still a possibility.

This comes after billions of NHS funds have been poured into banks, construction consortia, private healthcare and other major corporations, through PFI, Independent Sector Treatment Centres (ISTCs), IT, polyclinics, imaging and pathology companies, and portering and cleaning firms.

This is clearly the time for those working in the NHS to demand their trades unions – Unison, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, the BMA, Unite and the GMB – take action to end the privatisation of the NHS, and stop cuts and closures.

Jobs, pay and pensions are at stake. Huge multinational healthcare corporations are not going to maintain the agreed national terms and conditions negotiated with the NHS.

Furthermore, as patients, alongside every other working-class and middle-class family for whom the NHS is a life-saver, they are duty-bound to defend accessibility and quality of care, based on the NHS’s principle of universal free healthcare.

This is what faces workers, large sections of the middle class and all the members of unions organised in the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

NHSTogether, the TUC and non-TUC NHS unions, has called no action of any kind since November 2007, while these huge attacks on the NHS are taking place, with more to follow.

In every trades union members must demand their leaders get the TUC and NHSTogether to call a Day of Action against privatisation and cuts, and for a fully-funded, publicly provided, publicly funded and publicly accountable NHS. Leaders who oppose such a demand must be replaced.

On the Day of Action there has to be strike action by workers, both inside and outside the NHS, while ensuring necessary care for sick patients, and a national march and rally.

Although the government may ignore tens of thousands on the streets, as it has done in the past, such a Day of Action can be a step towards prolonged mass industrial and political action by the whole trade union movement. The NHS is here to stay! This is the policy for such an action.

If the Brown government refuses to change course, and continues to attack the NHS in the interests of the bankers and privateers, then it must be kicked out and replaced with a workers’ government that will guarantee the future of the NHS.