Rebuilding our NHS

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Louise Irvine is a KONP executive member and she gave this speech to a fringe meeting ‘Rebuilding Our NHS’, sponsored by GMB at their annual conference 6 June 2023.

GMB is one of 18 national unions supporting the SOS NHS alliance of 55 organisations. Launched by KONP and Health Campaigns Together (our trade union-oriented campaign)  early in 2022

It’s great to be speaking to you at the GMB annual conference today. As part of Keep Our NHS public, I along with many others have attended GMB picket lines in recent struggles to show the support of patients and public for your struggle for fair pay. We know that the NHS cannot function without its dedicated staff and we know that without a fair pay settlement the NHS staffing crisis will get worse.

We have heard the heart-breaking stories today from people who work in the NHS – staff struggling to provide decent care in atrocious conditions: too few staff and those that are in post – stressed, demoralised, underpaid and undervalued. No wonder so many are leaving.

What has happened to our once great NHS as it approaches its 75th birthday this July? It’s not just the NHS on its knees but all our public services, including vital social care services, after over a decade of austerity and cuts.

The statistics are dreadful: it is estimated that between 2012 and 2019 there were over a third of a million excess deaths due to austerity, hitting the poorest the hardest; 220,000 dying with Covid – through lethal government inaction and mismanagement of the pandemic; and in the current deepening NHS crisis there’s the tragedy of 500 people a week dying because overwhelmed emergency care services cannot cope.

It’s an absolutely desperate situation and we must demand that this and future governments take urgent and effective action to rescue and rebuild the NHS.

This will only happen through concerted action by all those who care about the NHS, who work in and who use the NHS – that means all of us, organised through our unions and our community campaigns.

To know what needs to be done we need to understand how we got here

We’ve had over a decade of underfunding and growing private sector encroachment into the NHS, disrupting it and siphoning off precious resources, at the expense of NHS staffing, infrastructure and services

And, of course, right on cue, the Tories and those on the right are saying the reason the NHS is failing is that it’s the NHS’s fault, that it’s a failed model and we need a different model, one with more private sector involvement, and people paying towards their care or taking out health insurance.

It is not the NHS that is failing – the NHS has been failed

Let’s be clear: the Nye Bevan model of universal comprehensive publicly provided health care funded through taxation and free at the point of use works perfectly well when it is properly funded and supported politically. That’s what the NHS was like in its heyday and still in 2015 it was recognised by international bodies as one of the best in the world.

It’s the dual attack of underfunding and privatisation that has damaged our NHS over the past 13 years. The UK government spends about £30 billion a year less than many comparable European economies on their health care, amounting to a cumulative underspend of over £300 billion over more than a decade. No wonder the NHS is not able to train enough staff and pay them properly; nor to fund our mental health services, GP and community services properly; nor to provide enough hospital beds or repair dangerously crumbling hospitals.

The Tory government says ‘you can’t fix the NHS by throwing money at it’, while it wantonly throws money – our public money, money that should have been spent on the NHS – at the private sector. It has wasted £billions in failed private PPE or test and trace contracts during Covid; paid £billions for empty beds in private hospitals, and now it is giving them £billions more to allegedly deal with the massive 7.4 million waiting list.

Funding the private sector will not help reduce waiting lists – and by further depleting the NHS of resources it will undermine the NHS’s ability to do so. We know from experience that the private sector is incapable of delivering – they don’t have sufficient capacity and can only function by parasitising the NHS, draining resources and poaching staff from the NHS.  Even during the last Labour government it was the NHS and not the independent sector treatment centres funded by Tony Blair that had the decisive impact in reducing the waiting lists.

But even though the political climate is desperate, we must not despair. We have not yet lost the NHS – I’m sure we’ve all heard stories from friends and family of people still getting great care in the NHS, due to hard working and dedicated staff. We still have all to fight for.

‘Don’t mourn – organise!’

So how do we do this? What is needed is a massive movement that can translate people’s passion for the NHS into political action. That means the public and NHS workers, unions and campaigns all working together to make three important demands on this and future governments:

  • restore fair pay for NHS, care and outsourced healthcare staff;
  • a massive emergency funding boost to the NHS as part of a long-term commitment to invest in a fully public NHS; and
  • an end to privatisation and outsourcing

Join us in our campaign – #SOS NHS

Keep our NHS Public and Health Campaigns Together have been fighting on all these fronts and we ask you to join us. Please ask your union branch to affiliate and join us in our festival of celebration and protest across the country in the first week of July to mark the 75th anniversary of the NHS. We must unite as NHS workers, patients and public to signal to this Tory government and to any future government that we will not tolerate the destruction of the NHS and we demand a commitment to policies that will rebuild it into a world class service once again.

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