Last week Labour launched its biggest attack yet on the NHS. The government placed an advert in the official journal of the European Union which invited businesses to apply to run primary care trusts.
These are the public bodies that plan and buy both hospital services and community NHS services.
This sell off would have given private companies direct control over the NHS budget and the ability to spend the money however they wanted.
They certainly wouldn’t have spent it on buying NHS services and employing NHS workers. The money would have gone to their own subsidiaries and partner companies.
The intention was to shift up to £64 billion of NHS spending straight into the pockets of big business - direct and far reaching privatisation.
This was not just a vague proposal. The advert was a “contract notice” inviting the private sector to come in. This was being done in absolute secrecy. Health unions had not even been informed.
This made a mockery of New Labour’s “Warwick Agreement” with the unions, which committed the government to joint working and to keeping the bulk of NHS services public.
Not even MPs or NHS chief executives knew about this massive privatisation scheme.
The campaigning group Keep Our NHS Public publicised the plan on Monday of last week. A leading Unison union member posted a link to the story on an activists’ message board. When I found the link, I checked with Amicus, one of the biggest health unions, and found the union knew nothing about this attack.
Recognising the threat, Amicus raised the issue at a Trades Union Congress general council on Wednesday of last week, and senior officials from several unions met that evening to plan a joint union campaign.
Meanwhile, activists from the Hackney branch of Keep Our NHS Public phoned round TV stations and journalists until they found someone who would take an interest. The BBC didn’t want to know, but the Times and the Guardian ran the story.
By Thursday night - faced with hostility from unions, nervous MPs, bewildered managers, and probing from journalists - the government backed down. The advert was withdrawn following the sudden discovery of “drafting errors”.
Health secretary Patricia Hewitt now claims that there is “no question whatsoever of privatising the NHS” and that this was simply about allowing primary care trusts to buy in help for things like data analysis. This is a simple lie.
The contract notice restricted bids to companies with direct experience of managing a healthcare budget worth at least £300 million, on the grounds that this is a typical primary care trust budget.
It is hard to see how doing a spot of data analysis requires experience of managing a £300 million budget. The reality is that giant US corporations such as United Health and Kaiser Permanente were all set to muscle in on huge chunks of the NHS.
This was a massive attack from Labour - and the speed of the climbdown shows just how vulnerable they are over the NHS.
It also shows that they are not confident to take on the unions openly when they think they might meet real resistance.
For more from Keep Our NHS Public go to www.keepourNHSpublic.com