Socialist Worker

Labour’s sweeteners for health privateers

by Joseph Choonara
Issue No. 1972

Health secretary Patricia Hewitt has said she wants £3 billion worth of NHS work to be carried out in the private sector. But because the existing public health system is among the most efficient in the world, the government is having to force the health sector to open up.

The first wave of private companies awarded contracts received a 15 percent premium from the department of health. For example, the Partnership for Health Group was paid £13.4 million for hip, knee, hand and foot operations that would have cost the NHS just £10.4 million. And these are among the simplest and most easily privatised procedures.

Across Britain private companies are being encouraged to cherry pick the most profitable types of operations by opening treatment centres or taking over existing NHS facilities.

The battle to keep the South West London Elective Orthopaedic Centre (SWLEOC) in public hands shows the lengths New Labour will go to in their attempt to introduce the market into the NHS. It also shows how health campaigners can fight these attempts.

The £15 million SWLEOC was opened just 18 months ago as an NHS facility performing hip and knee operations. The Epson & St Helier Hospitals NHS Trust planned to hand this new facility to the private sector — inviting the US-based Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in to run it.

HSS, in partnership with Mercury Health, already owns a large chain of private treatment centres in Britain.

Trust papers obtained by the pressure group London Health Emergency show how the government intervened to speed up the transfer to HSS. According to the papers, “The department of health has offered resources, financial, manpower and expertise, to assist the trust.”

But campaigners, including members of Keep Our NHS Public, forced the trust to delay the plan for two months pending a full review.

John Lister of London Health Emergency told Socialist Worker, “Campaigners intervened at a meeting of the Epson & St Helier trust board on Friday of last week. They challenged the directors to explain the reasons for transferring the state of the art, highly successful and popular NHS unit to a US-based company.

“Trust directors were unable to offer satisfactory answers, and eventually conceded that a decision on the transfer, due to be taken at that meeting, would be postponed until December.”

The review of the plan will include the option of retaining the unit in the NHS, and campaigners will now intensify the pressure to keep SWLEOC in the public sector.

“Their example shows the way for other campaigners, faced with the transfer of NHS facilities in the second wave of bidding for treatment centre contracts,” said John Lister.

The attempt to transfer SWLEOC to the private sector is part of a government plan to offer a choice of at least five treatment centres to all NHS patients—at least one of the centres on offer must be outside the NHS.

Other NHS treatment centres under threat of privatisation include Ravenscourt Park in north west London. This state of the art centre is running a budget deficit of £12.5 million and has been put up for tender to the private sector.

Colin Leys of Keep Our NHS Public said, “The emphasis on ‘choice’ contradicts common sense — what people want is for their local public services to be good.” So called choice is being used as a tool to bring in the private sector.

Blair and Hewitt’s agenda means starving publicly owned hospitals and treatment centres of cash, and forcing through free market principles that do not make any economic sense.

Keep Our NHS Public meeting, Wednesday 19 October, 7pm, Oxford House, Derbyshire Street, London E2. Speakers include John Lister and local GP Dr Anna Livingstone. Sponsored by Tower Hamlets Healthcare Unison.

Conference against privatisation and cuts in the NHS. Saturday 22 October, 10.30am–3pm, Headington Parish Hall, Dunstan Road, Oxford.

For more on the fight to save the NHS, including details of meetings around the country, go to

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Article information

Sat 15 Oct 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1972
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