Socialist Worker

Government cost-cutting in the NHS over a decade ago is putting lives at risk now

Issue No. 2698

Lack of equipment during this crisis is the result of years of cuts

Lack of equipment during this crisis is the result of years of cuts (Pic: John Campbell/flickr)


Why is the NHS failing to get the right protective equipment to health workers coming face to face with the coronavirus?

With hospitals running out of masks and frontline staff forced to share or improvise, health secretary Matt Hancock this week said he would move “heaven and earth” to solve the problem.

The reason for the failure does not centre on a lack of stock but an inability to get the right equipment to the right place at the right time.

To understand why we need once again to go back to the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the early 2000s, and the role of Patrick Carter or Baron Carter of Coles, as he prefers to be known.

Socialist Worker last week pointed to the baron’s work in helping privatise hospital pathology labs that today result in Britain being unable to test for the coronavirus on anything like the scale of most European countries.

In 2006 he turned his mind to how to make big savings by streamlining the NHS procurement and distribution systems.

In one of the biggest ever health privatisations, the NHS Purchasing and Supplies Agency arm of the health service was broken up and the NHS Logistics section handed over to German company DHL.

The contract was worth a staggering £22 billion.

Workers were livid and launched the first national strike in the NHS for almost 20 years, but private bosses eventually got their way.

DHL brought in its US healthcare specialists, Novation. Their job was to help trim down the newly formed NHS Supply Chain so that it was cost effective and ran as lean as possible.

This was touted by New Labour politicians as “best practice”.

This “best practice” had already led to Novation being investigated by the US justice department, concerned by claims that the company overcharged federal healthcare programmes.

NHS insiders told of chaos in DHL’s operation with new technology failing and NHS trusts across Britain up in arms about lack of stock of vital equipment.

But smelling large amounts of cash to be made by further slashing staff and costs, other private sector vultures soon began circling.

Unipart, once the parts division of the British Leyland car firm, won the contract after undercutting DHL in a bidding war in 2018.

Many experts said their offer must have been unrealistically low to win, and pointed out that Unipart had no experience in healthcare.

The firms that wanted a slice of the privatised NHS pie knew they had to compete on price, and the way to do that was to close warehouses, further outsource drivers and IT departments.

In the process the NHS lost vital expertise and any extra capability it had to react to a crisis.

The real price of Blair’s era of privatisation is now becoming clear – the inability of the NHS supply chain to get the most basic and necessary equipment to those who lives depend on it.


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