Health workers, activists, trade unionists and local campaigners are getting organised as Britain’s health service faces its greatest threat since its foundation — New Labour’s attempt to drive free market policies through the NHS.
By 2008 the government wants every NHS trust to be a semi-independent “foundation trust” run along market lines.
Health secretary Patricia Hewitt has also announced plans to restructure the Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) that are responsible for delivering care in local areas and currently receive 75 percent of the NHS budget.
Many PCTs will be merged and private companies will be able to cherry-pick the most lucrative procedures and services.
Meetings and demonstrations have been held as part of the Keep Our NHS Public campaign, set up to fight the government’s plans.
The first, a 60-strong meeting in Bristol on Friday of last week, was a model for what the fight to save the NHS should look like.
Three Bristol union branches — the Amicus health service branch, Unison central health branch and Unison Concorde health branch—sponsored the meeting.
Members of the campaign to save Frenchay hospital — threatened with closure to make up a £20 million budget deficit — and the Save Cosham Hospital campaign attended together with health workers and NHS users from across the city.
Mark Ladbrooke, chair of Oxford Unison health branch and a member of the Unison health service group executive, speaking in a personal capacity, explained why the NHS was worth defending.
“The NHS was set up in 1948,” he said. “It replaced a mixture of charitable institutions and private institutions, and also provided for people who had no healthcare at all.
“The important thing about it was that it was an integrated system. It provided a service free of charge, it employed people and it set up the facilities.
“It was based on risk pooling. If you go on holiday or want life insurance, then your insurance is based on how well you are.
“But the NHS looks at the whole population. If you are young and healthy you support people who are old or infirm. So it is also about social solidarity.”
Mark Ladbrooke also argued that the NHS is far cheaper to run than the market system Labour wants to introduce.
“Because the NHS both identifies need and provides treatment, and because it has a system of oversight through parliament and local democracy, there are very few middle layers — so it’s also a very efficient system.
“Now Labour is proposing that by 2008 every health trust will be a ‘foundation trust’, a semiindependent body. Commissioning of health services will take place on a market basis.
“The NHS will become a fragmented service with more red tape. And there will be less flexibility, because services will be tied into contracts.
Mark welcomed the new Keep Our NHS Public campaign. “Neither us in the unions or members of the general public can win this battle alone. We need to build a strong alliance,” he said.
For more on the NHS see Privatisation plans will devastate the NHS