£20 billion of health service cuts means talk of ringfencing NHS spending is ‘nonsense’ – Anna Athow tells BMA Conference fringe meeting

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Protest in Tower Hamlets against the privatisation of GP surgeries in the borough
Protest in Tower Hamlets against the privatisation of GP surgeries in the borough

AN All Trades Unions Alliance fringe meeting held in the evening of the first day of the British Medical Association’s Annual General Meeting was addressed by Dr Nicholas-Pillai, General Practitioner.

He explained some of the background to the peremptory closure of his GP medical practice in Enfield.

Bush Hill Park Medical Surgery was closed down on Monday, May 17 after just one working day’s notice, by Enfield PCT. The patients were encouraged to attend a new Darzi health centre at some distance from their homes.

The PCT used a report supplied by a private company to involve the GMC, resulting in suspension, further investigations and the abrupt closure. The worrying aspect of this process was the use of this company which describes its aims as ‘developing new models of primary care provision’ and ‘meeting the new agenda such as commissioning from the independent, voluntary and not for profit sectors . . .’

This took place in a national context of PCTs being pressurised by the government to close smaller NHS GP practices and give expensive contracts to larger Darzi polyclinics and an impression that pretexts for GMC referrals may be getting more and more flimsy.

Dr Safa Kaftan, spoke about some medical problems in Iraq since the sanctions and US/UK invasion.

On his recent visit there, his doctor colleagues spoke of the large increase in the numbers of babies being born with congenital abnormalities.

Kaftan said: ‘They also note a marked increase in childhood cancers. A first thought on seeing a child with a high temperature is now ‘Has this child got leukaemia?’

‘In November 2008, the Pentagon eventually confirmed that US forces did use white phosphorus munitions in Fallujah. Israel then used it in Gaza in 2009. White phosphorus causes burns and injuries which are worse than those caused by Napalm, a weapon used in Vietnam.

‘White phosphorus stays in the body and cannot be removed and this can effect the next generation. They are chemical weapons. The US went into Iraq claiming that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction, but it was they who used them.

‘These are banned weapons and should not be used. The advice now to women in Fallujah is not to have children for 10 years. There needs to be a fact-finding mission regarding these medical problems,’ concluded Kaftan

Libby Powell, the Programme Director of Medical Aid for Palestinians, described some of their work in Gaza, the West Bank and in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

She said the problems could be summed up as those of Occupation, Blockade, Military assault and Displacement. ‘The occupation results in terrible poverty, with very poor health and education facilities. There is minimal infrastructure and movement restriction.

‘The blockade imposes isolation. Visitors wait months to get in, if at all, and it is very hard, if not impossible, to refer patients out for medical care. Medical aid, paper, equipment to rebuild demolished homes and other buildings are blocked. The media is stopped.

‘There has been huge loss of life and long-term disability caused by military assault and long-term psychosocial effects on families.

‘A quarter of a million refugees live in 12 camps in Lebanon, established 60 years ago, dependent on aid from NGOs. The people are prevented from training in normal professions. There is not work. The poverty is some of the worst in the world and they lack hope. They cannot access normal government services, primary and emergency care. It is “de –development”.’

She added: ‘On the West Bank, young would-be doctors lack training. A patient referred to a specialist in another town, may never get through the road block.

‘It is a political situation of systematic denial of the right to health.

‘In Gaza, 48 per cent of medical facilities have been damaged or destroyed. 16 medical staff died in the invasion last year and very many were injured. The siege affects every aspect of daily life. 53 per cent of the population are under 18 years old.’

Anna Athow, surgeon and BMA Council member, speaking in a personal capacity, pointed out the connections between the wars in the Middle East and the desperate drive of US imperialism to control the oil in the Gulf.

She said that ‘Now that their banks have crashed, and been bailed out with taxpayers money, governments all over Europe are trying to make the working class pay with huge cuts in public spending.

‘In Spain, Greece, France, Ireland, Italy there have been major demonstrations by the unions to defend living standards.

‘In this country, the new government is making the most draconian cuts to the public sector since the 1920s. VAT rises to 20 per cent, a stop on increases in child benefit, a massive withdrawal of disability allowances, are just some of the ways in which the poorest and most vulnerable will be hit.

‘The 25 per cent cuts to the main public sector departments is estimated to lead to the loss 750,000 public sector jobs. They have imposed a pay freeze in the public sector and extending the working age before pension.

‘The so called ringfencing of NHS spending is nonsense, as they are proceeding with the £20bn so called efficiency savings, which represent 20 per cent of the NHS Budget. Already there are massive cuts taking place in NHS jobs and beds. The NHS employers are arguing the necessity of closing not just parts of hospitals, but of entire hospitals and selling off the buildings and land.

‘The penultimate proposal in the Coalition’s health policy, reads “We are committed to the continuous improvement of the quality of services to patients, and to achieving this through much greater involvement of the independent and voluntary providers.”

‘They are building on all the market infrastructures brought in by Labour. Payments by results is being rolled out to community care and mental health.

‘They are outsourcing the former through the Transforming Community services programme. GPs are to be amalgamated into large federations covering populations of 30,000 up to 100,000 so that they can do the commissioning in partnership with private companies.

‘This will really hand over the gate keeper role of the GPs to the private sector and lay the basis for HMOs. [Health Maintenance Organisations as run by US private healthcare corporations]

‘The direction of travel for hospitals is privatisation. The new Chairman of Monitor, Steven Bundred, wants Foundation Trusts’ finances removed from public accounts. He says this may help them borrow from the banks!

‘This would mean, that when they can’t pay the loans back, they can quietly go bankrupt and get sold off. No doubt the PFI companies would be good candidates to take them over. After all the Tories privatised gas, water and electricity.

‘We can see the direction of travel with the franchising out of Hinchingbrooke Hospital’s management to a private company.’

She added: ‘The trade unions must take up the defence of Gaza and call for the lifting of the siege. They must call for an independent international enquiry into the assault on the Flotilla taking aid to Gaza.

There must be a boycott of Israeli goods. Imperialist troops must get out of the Gulf.’

She concluded: ‘The unions must unite in stopping this massive onslaught on their members by this Coalition and must get organised to defend every public service and all public sector jobs, and terms and conditions and pensions.

‘What is needed is a leadership which will lead this fight. The capitalist system is in crisis and is destroying all the gains of the last 60 years. What we need is a workers government and socialism.

‘Build the Workers Revolutionary Party.’