'A war on the public sector.' That is how GMB trade union leader John Edmonds described New Labour's new plans to send NHS patients for treatment in private hospitals or abroad.
Health secretary Alan Milburn claimed the plans would bring 'freedom of choice'. He says they will relieve the suffering of patients who have been on the waiting list for longer than six months. The plans are a cruel hoax.
Instead of funding the billions needed for publicly run services, the government is siphoning off money into the private sector. Milburn says he wants to bring 'consumer disciplines' into the health service. But in reality he is bringing in the chaos of the market. The plans will see the introduction of market competition into health on an even bigger scale than in the worst days of the Tories' internal market. Private companies will be scrambling to compete with each other in order to win the most lucrative financial deal from the NHS.
And patients will have to compete with each other to get treatment. There will not be a real choice. Patients won't be able to pick a hospital or country, but will be presented with a 'take it or leave it' option depending where treatment is available. So people with serious and painful conditions could be forced to decide whether to stay waiting for treatment locally, or face the upheaval of travelling to another part of Britain or abroad.
Guy Routh, chair of the NHS Consultants Association, warns that the plans could be dangerous, as there would be a lack of continuity of care. He says, 'An operation is not like having your hair done. 'You need care before and after-it's difficult to do that if the hospital is elsewhere in the country or abroad.'
And consultant surgeon Charles Collins from Taunton in Somerset says, 'Different hospitals use different techniques-perhaps different implants, for example, in hip operations. 'When the patient runs into trouble, who is going to look after them?' Some have argued that these measures are a 'stopgap', which will help alleviate the suffering of those on the waiting list.
But for privatiser Milburn this is part of his wider project to bring the private sector to the centre stage of health provision. So Milburn boasted last week that the private sector 'is part of the NHS family'. 'It is a relationship not just for the short term but the long term,' he said. New Labour is abolishing the NHS as we know it, and creating a market driven two-tier service where private companies rake in the profits and patient care takes second place.
Tne head of the Royal College of Surgeons, Sir Peter Morris, lambasted the government's health record last week. He hit out after conducting a tour of hospitals in England:
'There are not enough beds. In some places, elective [non-urgent] surgery has just about stopped.' He warned that by 2009, despite the government's promise to train more doctors, Britain would be short of 2,000 surgeons. He said Blair's pledge-later downgraded to 'an aim'-to meet European average health spending by 2005 would barely be enough to catch up with previous cuts. 'Things have gone downhill so much over the last ten years that we'll spend two or three years just trying to get back to where we were then.'
Morris also lashed out at the government's Private Finance Initiative schemes: 'I am very concerned that in ten years time we will be in desperate trouble because of the money needed to keep them going. They always try to cut down beds. Because the people who put up the finance have to make money, they are always cutting corners.'
Savaging New Labour
Professor Wendy Savage, a champion of women's healthcare in the 1970s and 1980s, resigned from the Labour Party in response to Milburn's privatisation plans. She said in a letter to the Guardian last week:
'In London NHS surgeons could do far more work in NHS hospitals, if we paid nurses and operating department assistants (ODAs) a reasonable salary. The more expensive agency staff are used, the more difficult it is to recruit and retain nurses and ODAs, and so rolling theatre closures and lack of beds reduce the ability of doctors to tackle the work. And the reduction in surgery because of insufficient theatre time and beds means that the training of the next generation of surgeons is adversely affected. The problem in London is not lack of space, it is the inability to use the beds and theatres effectively because of these shortages.'
In answer to Milburn's suggestion that people will welcome plans to use private hospitals to cut waiting lists as 'pragmatic', she says:
'Whilst I deplore the suffering that waiting causes ill patients, I believe most people understand that 'letting the genie out of the bottle' is the end of the NHS as a free service for all citizens.'
'Tony Blair has let us down'
'I would do the same thing again if I had the chance. The NHS let us down and Tony Blair has let us down since. He is only interested in visiting shiny new hospitals, he doesn't want to know about the wards where doctors and nurses are overworked and people are fighting for their lives.'
SHARRON STORER, who confronted Tony Blair during the general election, speaking out again last week. She has not heard from Blair since an initial letter six months ago, despite his promises to follow up her case.
Brown's cash con
Most of the extra money chancellor Gordon Brown promised for the NHS next year will go to pay off debts and to fund existing initiatives. That is the conclusion of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, which represents NHS financial chiefs.
It says 40 percent of NHS hospital trusts are in debt, with things set to get much worse next year. The government has promised to spend an extra £5.5 billion on the NHS next year. 'It would be foolish for people to believe that all this new money is going to go into lots of new services,' said the chair of the association, Mark Millar. The association says the only reason there aren't greater debts is because the NHS has so far failed to recruit enough new staff and hasn't started up promised new government initiatives.
Private firm BUPA will run and manage the first of the government's new treatment centres at Redwood Hospital in Surrey. But NHS patients won't be getting first class style treatment.
The hospital will be treating over twice as many patients as it does now. While Redwood Hospital's private patients will be transferred to an exclusive private hospital. It will still cost the NHS more though, with public money going to boost the profits of BUPA.
Currently BUPA operations cost over three times as much as those on the NHS. For example, a cataract operation costs £826 on the NHS and up to £3,000 with BUPA.
A heart bypass operation costs £4,956 on the NHS while BUPA charges £13,000. BUPA says it will charge the NHS less, but as the Independent newspaper says, 'BUPA can expect substantial financial benefits.' Some 80 Labour MPs signed a House of Commons motion last week against the government's policy.
It said, 'The experience of public servants and users best demonstrates that directly funded and managed public services with directly employed staff can deliver the improvements in service provision that the government seeks.' It warned that the deal for Redwood Hospital would mean taxpayers' money directly contributing to BUPA's profits, and that there would be a two-tier staffing system.