Last spring Tony Blair had a breakfast meeting with the private companies trying to muscle in on the NHS.
He promised them he would open up the whole of the NHS to the private sector. In this regard at least, Blair seems to be keeping his word.
In Labour’s first two terms, we’ve seen massive privatisation in the health sector, going way beyond PFI hospitals.
Diagnostic services have been privatised, and “independent sector treatment centres” opened. Foundation hospital trusts open the door to even more privatisation in the future.
And within days of New Labour’s election win, health secretary Patricia Hewitt announced a huge expansion in the number of operations to be carried out privately.
An extra £3 billion is to be spent on private surgery over the next five years, doubling NHS use of private hospitals.
Labour’s privatisers are now turning their attention to primary care. That means GP services and other healthcare provided in the community — health visitors, district nursing, physiotherapy, speech therapy and so on.
Reports are now emerging of a closed meeting last month between senior Whitehall officials and representatives of the private sector. Plans were revealed to force primary care trusts — the NHS organisations that run community services — to spend at least 10 percent of their budgets on private sector contracts.
This idea isn’t new. Primary care trusts were first ordered to increase their private sector spending last September. But Labour hastily withdrew the plans, realising that bad publicity over NHS privatisation could damage their election chances.
Now the plans are back with a vengeance. This means over £1 billion a year will be simply handed over to privateers.
Primary care trusts will be forced to spend money privately even when they do not want to and when it is not in the interests of patient care.
There’s an even bigger threat, based on extending a “public-private partnership” scheme in primary care called NHS Lift.
NHS Lift is complex, but it has strong similarities to PFI hospitals. It means primary care trusts can only build new health centres, or get old buildings refurbished, by signing long term lease contracts with the private sector.
The health centres will be forced to share their premises with all manner of commercial companies. Estate management and cleaning services will also be provided by the private sector “partner”.
Labour wants to extend NHS Lift so that private companies will provide healthcare too. This means private GPs, private health visiting, private district nursing and so on.
Labour pretends that all this no holds barred neo-liberalism isn’t privatisation because the NHS is still “free at the point of delivery”. But the reality is that the NHS is being steadily dismantled as a publicly owned and controlled body.
We are fast heading for a completely privatised NHS. And a privatised NHS will mean worse healthcare. The market cannot provide the high quality healthcare we all need. NHS priorities must be set by human need, not by the desire of big business to make a fast buck.
It’s time for our trade unions to make a stand on this. There’s no better place to start than the excellent policy on privatisation passed by the Amicus union’s conference last month.
We need our unions to work together against government attacks. We have to support members resisting privatisation. And we have to oppose privatisation in all our dealings with employers and the government.
Gill George is a health worker in east London and a national executive member of the Amicus union. She writes here in a personal capacity.