No one should trust Tory claims to be ending privatisation in the NHS.
A leaked copy of the government’s plans to “reform” the health service in the wake of the pandemic led to some far-fetched headlines last weekend.
The BBC declared that the forthcoming White Paper would wipe out market-driven changes brought in under Tory David Cameron and Labour prime minister Tony Blair.
Privatisation has spread like a virulent cancer through the health service over the last 25 years.
Some £9.2 billion of scarce NHS cash was spent on contracts with the private sector in 2019. Much of the money went into the pockets of companies such as Virgin Care and Care UK.
Thousands of vital workers are now employed by fly-by-night contractors that cut corners and put both patients and staff at risk.
Even if fewer new contracts are awarded in the future, their existing ones will allow them to carry on leaching for years to come.
The real reason for the Tories’ new plans is that they want to bring the NHS firmly back under the control of the health secretary.
The NHS was given “operational independence” under 2012 reforms introduced by then-health secretary Andrew Lansley. He wanted each bit of the health service to function like a separate private firm.
But the pandemic has shown that, more than ever, we need a united and accountable health service.
It is clear to all that there are far too few beds in hospitals. Even before coronavirus, intensive care units were on the brink of being overrun every winter.
It is also obvious that there are far too few doctors, nurses and other health professionals.
And the separation of local community health services, such as GP surgeries, from hospitals means many of the most vulnerable patients fall through gaps in the system. Sick people discharged from hospital often find it impossible to get the right care once they are back at home.
What links these problems together is the way previous health reforms have forced different bits of the service to compete against each other.
Current health secretary Matt Hancock has found that the break-up of the NHS means it’s impossible to get different parts of the service working together. That’s something that has long been pointed out by NHS campaigners.
Hancock’s solutions to these problems include creating “integrated care systems” that are supposed to unite all the different types of health care in an area.
But no one can be sure that these supersized bodies won’t themselves be privatised. Ministers have already said they want local “captains of industry” to sit on their boards.
And the huge wave of health privatisation that has taken place during the pandemic is another reason to be sceptical.
The pandemic may have shown up health service privatisation to be completely irrational. But for the Tories, privatisation is in the blood.
Vaccine problems show defects of Tory strategy
New variants of coronavirus are making Tory plans for a rapid reopening of the economy ever more dangerous.
Many vaccine makers reported last week that their jabs are far less effective against the South African coronavirus mutation than the original virus.
AstraZeneca acknowledged that its vaccine will not protect people against mild to moderate Covid-19 illness.
Pfizer and Moderna have also said the variant affects the level of protection of their vaccines too.
Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Witwatersrand university in South Africa, says the news should force a rethink.
“These findings recalibrate thinking about how to approach the pandemic virus and shift the focus from the goal of herd immunity against transmission to the protection of all at-risk individuals in the population against severe disease,” he said.
But government ministers here, under pressure from the Tory right, have spent recent weeks telling people of their plans to reopen schools.They have even talked of “vaccine passports” that will allow people to work and travel.
The vaccination deficiencies show they must be used as part of a wider strategy that includes an extensive test and trace system. That’s something Britain does not have.
It also reveals that Tory claims to have “led the world” on a vaccination programme are a fraud.
Coronavirus mutations will continue in all parts of the world where the virus is circulating.
Those countries hardest hit by the first wave, and those with only limited healthcare services, are incubating new variants.
Ministers who claimed victory by having bought-up vaccines early, then gleefully called other nations “slow”, have peddled a myth that Britain will soon be immune.
But it is likely that other versions of coronavirus will emerge and that vaccinations will be in a battle to catch up for some years to come.
The only way out of the cycle is to share the vaccines that are available across the world.
And the knowledge and technology should be freely available to every nation.
Carers can’t live off sick pay
Care workers are using their holiday entitlement when off sick with Covid-19 rather than try to scrape by on £96 a week sick pay.
This raises fears that poverty will force some to carry on working when they should be self-isolating.
Government policy says that employers must pay wages in full when staff are ill with coronavirus or are self-isolating.
But many say they have been forced to rely only on statutory sick pay. The Unison union said it had been contacted by many workers complaining about the practice.
One affected care worker said, “You have a lot of women whose partners have lost their jobs so they really can’t afford not to come in.
“There are people who don’t want to work because they are scared, but they can’t afford not to.”
One firm, Bespoke Health and Social Care, admitted its staff received only statutory sick pay when off work. It said the government only provided enough funding to pay one worker for an individual’s care package.
“Low paid workers shouldn’t be losing money they can ill afford when they’re poorly or stopping home to avoid spreading the virus,” said Gavin Edwards from Unison.
“The system isn’t working.
“Every care worker who has to be off work during the pandemic must be paid their wages in full.”
Carlisle NHS pay fightback
Around 150 porters, cleaners and switchboard workers at Carlisle’s Cumberland Infirmary are preparing to strike.
The Unison and GMB union members are angry after being repeatedly denied promised pay enhancements for working unsocial hours.
NHS privatisation means the workers have passed to new employers on a number of occasions.
They were recently transferred to Mitie.
“Our members at the hospital feel utterly devalued,” said Unison regional organiser David Atkinson.