Health campaigners from across the country will gather in central London on Saturday 20 January for a national conference of the Keep Our NHS Public campaign.
The event will be a crucial date for all those involved in campaigns to defend the NHS. We will share experiences, organise support for any national action called by trade unions, and discuss how to take forward the national campaign to keep the NHS in public hands.
The NHS is under sustained bombardment from the government. Deficits, crises, cuts and redundancies are shaking its foundations. Marketisation and an open door to the private sector are the ideological drivers – yet the government claims this is not about privatisation.
And indeed, this is different from Margaret Thatcher’s grand sell-offs, where whole industries were auctioned off with the state washing its hands of the results.
What we are witnessing instead is the “patchwork privatisation” of the health service. It is being parcelled up into bite-sized pieces and handed over to private control bit by bit.
This will make rational planning of healthcare to meet health needs – the fundamental organisational principle of the NHS since its foundation in 1948 – a thing of the past.
It will remove healthcare from democratic control, destroy accountability, fragment the service, and lead to a reduced level of care with higher costs.
But there are signs of hope. Where patients are faced with the consequences of the government’s privatisation drive, they don’t like it.
The most celebrated case was that of Pam Smith, the Derbyshire pensioner who forced a high court judicial review when her local GP surgery was handed over to United Health, a private company.
She eventually won the legal action and stopped the deal – and in doing so extended the rights of patients to be consulted.
Meanwhile, recent months have been marked by a huge upsurge in demonstrations and activity around the country as communities defend their NHS against cuts and privatisation.
Thousands have marched through the most unlikely towns in what campaigners have called the biggest groundswell of unrest since the poll tax.
Haywards Heath saw 7,000 march in defence of accident and emergency (A&E) services. Some 5,000 protested through Hastings, while 3,000 demonstrated in Stroud over maternity services.
Some 5,000 formed a human “circle of defiance” around the hospital in Worthing, 40,000 people signed a petition against cuts in Huddersfield, a 22,000 name petition was collected in Bridlington – the list goes on.
These numbers represent a serious revolt. At present it is often fragmented and local, but as “market discipline” bites and ever more cherished A&E, maternity and paediatric departments come under threat, people are making the connection between cuts and the wider process of privatisation.
It can only get worse for the government. Over the winter a further round of cuts and closures are due to kick in.
Stretched budgets will mean more redundancies and the prospect of trusts delaying operations until the new financial year.
And all the time, more evidence is being amassed of the money being wasted on private sector treatment centres, management consultants, PFI and the like.
The hope for campaigners is that public anger continues to grow to the point where it becomes a serious political problem for the government.
Gordon Brown will not want to find himself fighting the next election against a background of closures and conflict in an area that should be Labour’s trump card. But for this to come to pass, campaigners and communities must mount more unified and concerted action than has been seen so far.
For more details on the campaign go to www.keepourNHSpublic.com