While the NHS lurches deeper into crisis, private health care for the rich is cashing in.
A number of NHS hospitals were forced to cancel all but the most urgent cancer operations last week as wards filled with desperately sick coronavirus patients.
In Leatherhead, Surrey, bodies are being stored at a temporary facility after the county’s hospital mortuaries reached capacity.
One hospital chief in south west England described the situation as an “absolute crisis” and said trusts in his area were “hanging on by their fingernails”.
Like many others, he reported not only a shortage of beds, but a terrible lack of doctors and nurses.
But it is a very different story at hospitals in the “independent sector”. There even trivial treatments and routine surgery continues as if nothing has happened.
Worse still, these leaching firms often siphon off NHS doctors to treat their fee-paying patients. These are the same workers who could be helping deal with the crisis in the hospitals that pay the bulk of their wages.
Normally guarded senior clinical leaders in NHS England are “profoundly uncomfortable” that routine care is continuing in private hospitals, reported the Health Service Journal.
“Many were ‘incensed’ that the independent sector and the doctors working in it were, as they described it, ‘once again taking the piss and walking off with the money’. They expressed the view the sector needed to be ‘shamed’ into providing more help,” it said.
In a joint letter to all medical directors in London, the leaders asked them “not to support” staff performing non-urgent work in the private sector for the next month.
And some senior doctors are now demanding that all private healthcare be commandeered by the NHS so that vital treatments, such as cancer care, can be shifted there. Not only can this move provide more capacity, but would isolate vulnerable patients and mean they can be more easily protected.
But with the NHS in such a deep crisis we should go much further than paying private hospitals to start treating the less well off.
Instead, private health care should be nationalised immediately, without a pay-off to the fat cats who feed off them.
The nurses, and other health staff, who work in the sector should be immediately transferred to the NHS and asked to work where they are most needed.
And, those top consultants who have gorged themselves by taking a generous NHS salary while grabbing a fat slice of private sector cash should also be brought to heel.
One of Labour’s great compromises in the founding of the NHS was to allow private practice to continue—despite the risk of a conflict of interest.
The coronavirus crisis shows exactly why this practice must end.