Socialist Worker

Milburn's answer? More privatisation

Issue No. 1773

Patients are waiting longer than ever to be seen in hospital accident and emergency departments. That is the shocking state of the NHS after five years of the New Labour government, according to official figures released last week. Health secretary Alan Milburn's equally shocking response was to signal a major drive to privatise healthcare in Britain.

The official Audit Commission public spending watchdog reports that waiting times in casualty departments have worsened over the last five years.

In 1996, before Labour came to office, 28 percent of patients had to wait more than one hour to be seen in casualty. Now that figure has risen to 47 percent.

In half of all casualty departments one in four patients has to wait over four hours to be seen. It was one in ten five years ago.

In London a massive 70 percent of casualty patients have to wait over an hour before being seen by a doctor.

'Performance is getting worse. Waiting times are getting longer and the trend seems to be accelerating,' says the report.

That means more and more patients suffering the indignity and pain of long waits on trolleys, and the stress of cancelled operations. And it means intolerable workloads for staff, already rushed off their feet. But instead of giving the NHS the money it needs to treat patients, Milburn is pushing through the biggest privatisation the NHS has yet seen.

He announced last week that £40 million of public money would be used to pay for private hospitals to treat NHS patients. He also said he was exploring the possibility of the government 'buying' the entire capacity of some private hospitals in contracts lasting 'a number of years.'

This amounts to a massive backdoor privatisation of the NHS. It will not improve the NHS and will simply bolster the profits of private health companies. It will pave the way for a bigger drive to push people into private hospitals. Private hospitals use NHS consultants and, as they expand, recruit trained nursing staff from the NHS.

Labour MP David Hinchcliffe explained, 'One of the reasons for lengthy waiting lists is the amount of time many part time NHS consultants spend on private work.' And Karen Jennings, the head of nursing in the UNISON health workers' union, says, 'What we don't want to see is increased use of the private sector, dragging more trained staff away from the NHS and exacerbating the problem.'

Funding failure

  • Out of the world's 30 most industrialised countries, only Mexico, Turkey, Korea, Ireland and Luxembourg spend less of their national wealth on healthcare than Britain.
  • Britain spends less on health as a proportion of national wealth than former Eastern Bloc countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic, and less than poorer European Union countries such as Greece and Portugal.
  • There are just four hospital beds for every 1,000 people in Britain, half the number in the Czech Republic.
  • Even with the funding increases that New Labour says are coming, health spending in Britain is set to rise to just 7.6 percent of national wealth.
  • That is still less than the 9.1 percent average in other European Union countries, and much less than the 10 percent of richer EU countries like France and Germany.

'A winter of redundancies'

ONE OF Britain's biggest firms was this week threatening that 133,000 workers would lose their jobs unless the government handed it £300 million of public money. Chemical giant ICI was to meet with New Labour trade and industry minister Patricia Hewitt this week.

It says that it could shut the Ineos Chlor plant in Runcorn if the government doesn't stump up the cash. The plant produces four fifths of British chlorine, a vital ingredient in the chemicals and plastics industry.

'If it cannot get the money then the company sees the prognosis for the plant is not good,' said ICI last week. The Runcorn plant employs 1,200 workers directly. But a report commissioned by the firm says that if the plant goes the knock-on effects on the chemical industry would be massive, threatening 133,000 jobs.

The government should certainly act to save jobs, but not by handing public money to bolster ICI's profits. It should instead nationalise the Runcorn plant. ICI is not the only one turning to blackmail. The CBI bosses' organisation this week demanded that the government cut business taxes, or British firms would throw workers on the dole. The toll of job losses continued to sound last week.

This gives the lie to government claims that Britain will escape the recession gathering pace across the world. Travel giant Thomas Cook announced plans to slash 2,600 jobs, one in ten of the company's workers. Engineering firm GKN said it planned 1,250 job cuts.

The government was claiming last week that the British economy was still growing. But the number of redundancies announced in the three months before September had already leapt by 14 percent compared to a year ago. A survey this week by the bosses' Financial Times predicted a 'winter of redundancies'.

Last week ceramics firm Royal Doulton announced 367 jobs would go due to the 'world slump'. IT firm Cedar said it was axing 320 jobs from its base in Cobham, Surrey. Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch wants workers to pay the price through job and pay cuts at the Sun and other titles as his News International empire slides into financial crisis.

Would you pay Branson £450 million?

DAYS AFTER the government appointed the boss of Virgin Rail to head the Strategic Rail Authority it emerged that his former company could be set to pocket up to £450 million of taxpayers' money. Richard Bowker was co-chairman of Virgin Rail, which has one of the worst records of any of the privatised rail companies.

He was handpicked by transport secretary Stephen Byers last week for the £500,000 a year job as head of the Strategic Rail Authority. Bowker will oversee the company the government wants to replace the collapsed Railtrack.

Now Bowker's former company is demanding compensation from Railtrack for its failures to deliver track improvements. Now Railtrack has collapsed, the government could be handing over £450 million of taxpayers' money to Richard Branson's Virgin.

NEW LABOUR'S plan to privatise London's tube were thrown into doubt last week. The government was forced to admit that the private firms bidding to take over parts of the network could fail vital safety tests.

Officials at the Health and Safety Executive also confirmed that it was 'unrealistic' that the safety tests on the bids would be complete before the government's deadline of April next year.

US bosses admit job cuts planned

US BOSSES have admitted that the slump sweeping the country was already under way before 11 September. The admission came as unemployment in the US soared to its highest level in two decades.

Politicians, the media and some firms have tried to blame job cuts on the impact of the 11 September attacks. But a poll of 200 top company executives found that most thought job cuts were already on the way before then.

'Fundamentally this is the same cyclical downturn that we were seeing develop over the months prior to 1 September,' said Carly Fiorina, chief executive of the Hewlett-Packard computer group.

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Sat 3 Nov 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1773
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