David Cameron has been forced into a humiliating climbdown over his plans to “reform” the NHS.
The government hoped its health and social care bill would be the first step in dismantling the health service in England and replacing it with a myriad of competing companies.
But unanimous opposition from health workers and growing public anger have dashed its hopes.
The scale of the rage shocked the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference into opposition—despite not one of their MPs having voted against the plans.
The coalition was forced to “pause” the progress of its bill in parliament in order to “listen” to the views of a handpicked panel called the NHS Future Forum.
Professor Steve Field, the ultra-loyal chair of the Forum, has been forced to raise “deep-seated concerns” over the bill, despite having supported the Tories’ plans.
The Forum’s recommendations water-down the Tory plans—but they do not destroy them.
And, despite anger from backbench Tory toffs who want the NHS smashed quickly, Cameron has little choice but to adopt the Forum’s recommendations. These include:
- Plans to hand over 80 percent of the NHS budget to groups of GPs by 2013 should be delayed until the new bodies are “ready”. These “Clinical Commissioning Groups” will still replace local Primary Care Trusts. Thousands will still be laid off.
- Nurses, hospital doctors and other health workers might also be included in the Groups. Meetings must be held in public and allow for independent representatives. It is still unclear whether there will be any democratic control over them.
- Remove plans to turn NHS regulator Monitor into a body that “promotes competition”. Instead, it should first champion patients’ rights. What happens when patients’ rights and private profits are in conflict is uncertain.
- Private firms should not be allowed “cherry pick” health services they want to sell to the NHS, and they should be made to pay towards training doctors and nurses. But the role of the private sector will still be allowed to grow.
- All NHS organisations, including those in private hands, should have to publish their accounts and be accountable to a new watchdog, the Clinical Senate. Who is represented on the Senate and what powers they will have is not yet finalised.
- The health secretary should not be allowed to wash his hands of responsibility for the health service by handing accountability to a new NHS Commissioning Board.
Nick Clegg was busy this week proclaiming a victory for his Liberal Democrat lapdogs.
The deputy prime minister said, “Our overall demands have been very, very handsomely met.”
But he admitted, “This is still a major reform of the NHS.”
In the ears of health workers and the majority of the public, the words “NHS reform” sound dirty. They know that “reform” always means more privatisation and less patient care.
And the continuing threat of a revised government health bill is why the campaign to defend the NHS must continue to grow.
Already in London, long-standing protest groups have been reinvigorated by groups of health workers and by medical and nursing students. Together they have mass leafleted, lobbied and marched in their thousands.
This has helped turn even the most conservative professional associations in the NHS against the health bill.There must be more demonstrations, and they must spread across England. In this way workers in the NHS can draw confidence and push for strikes against threats to the services they provide—and in defence of their jobs, pay and pensions.
Together we can turn the coalition’s retreat into a rout.