The government has announced one of the biggest ever health privatisation schemes - selling off the contract to supply and equip hospitals across England. But the workers threatened with privatisation are balloting for strike action to oppose the government’s plans.
The department of health announced that on 1 October German company DHL, best known as a parcel courier, will take control of the contract - worth £22 billion in purchases over ten years.
The privatisation programme includes NHS Logistics, the not for profit agency that supplies hospitals with 500,000 products, and parts of the NHS Purchasing and Supplies Agency. It will affect 1,700 workers.
Workers at the five NHS Logistics depots, who are represented by the Unison union, are set to announce the result of a strike ballot next Monday. If, as expected, workers vote in favour of strikes, the action needs to be swift and hard hitting - a three-day strike could shut down the NHS.
Unison members reported a mood of shock and anger in depots, contradicting the picture presented by DHL chief executive John Allen. On Tuesday of this week, he told listeners to Radio Four’s Today Programme, “We started briefing staff from 4am this morning, and the feedback I’ve had is that staff are very positive.”
“Absolute crap,” responded Paul Harper, Unison branch secretary for the Maidstone NHS Logistics depot in Kent. He told Socialist Worker, “During the presentation someone told the DHL representative, ‘I just don’t want to work for you.’ Their representative went to pieces, he said he’d been ‘reading the socialist press’ and was ‘very worried’.”
According to Paul, the workers at his depot are more determined than ever to strike. They are fighting to defend their terms and conditions, but they are also proud to defend the NHS. “People blame the government,” he said. “They have a plan to privatise the NHS - piece by piece.”
The privatisation plan is not a pragmatic, money saving scheme as the government claims. It is driven by ideology - Tony Blair’s total commitment to the free market.
David Hall, a former chair of the logistics agency, commented, “We always operated on a principle of ‘best buys’. If you buy the cheapest, you can have other consequences.
“During my tenure, hip joints were purchased by a group of trusts for hip operations which failed. We had to go back in and supply the correct ones of a better standard, and in fact the people had to be re-operated on.”
Under Blair and his health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, Britain has shifted closer than ever towards a US-style health service.
So it is no surprise to discover that one of DHL’s partners will be US corporation Novation. DHL’s John Allen claimed, “Novation are a subcontractor to us - a small number of their people will be coming over to import best practice to this operation.”
This “best practice” has led to Novation being investigated by the US justice department, concerned by claims that the company overcharged federal healthcare programmes.
The case has raised concerns about “group purchasing organisations”, which operate as near monopolies in the supply chain and suck £2.6 billion in profits out of health programmes in the US.
Privatisation will not only deepen the financial crisis faced by NHS trusts, it will also lead to poorer conditions for the workforce. Paul said his co-workers at the Maidstone depot challenged representatives of DHL over plans to bring in a same-day delivery scheme.
Workers asked whether the scheme would mean working at weekends, rather than just Monday to Friday. “Things change,” was the ominous reply.
Jan Lavender, Unison branch secretary from the Bury St Edmunds depot in Suffolk, expressed similar concerns. “We are particularly worried about new starters,” she said. “Will they have the same sick pay, holiday pay and so on?”
She added, “There was a feeling of deflation when we heard the news that the privatisation was going through. But now we’re getting over that feeling and thinking that we have to show our strength.
“At the end of the day, DHL want profits. I’m worried for the future of the whole NHS. I’m prepared to do anything to prove that we’re not pushovers.”
This dispute is a key struggle for trade unionists meeting for the TUC conference next week. The battle at NHS Logistics could become a crucial focus for the battle against privatisation of public services.
Rush messages of support and donations for the fighting fund to NHS Logistics Unison, St Barnabus Close, Allington, Maidstone, Kent ME16 0LW. Make cheques payable to “Unison - NHS Logistics Dispute”