By Robert Stevens and Chris Marsden
Years of spending cuts have been used to intentionally bring about the destruction of the National Health Service (NHS).
At the weekend, the British Red Cross said the NHS was facing a “humanitarian crisis.” Its statement follows the deaths of two patients in Worcestershire Royal Hospital corridors while waiting for treatment. According to the BBC, a woman died of a heart attack after waiting for 35 hours on a trolley in a corridor. A man suffered an aneurysm after a long wait on a trolley, and, despite being treated, could not be saved.
The Daily Mirror reported that in recent days, a man was found hanged in a toilet cubicle at the hospital and may have been “accidentally strangled” by a drip feed cord.”
The deaths all occurred between New Year’s Day and January 3.
Some patients are waiting even longer for treatment, with John Freeman telling the Guardian that his 66-year-old wife Pauline waited for 54 hours on a hospital trolley in Worcestershire after suffering a stroke.
However, the situation in Worcestershire is only a microcosm of that facing the entire NHS. The chief executive of the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson, said, “[We are] responding to the humanitarian crisis in our hospital and ambulance services across the country. We have been called in to support the NHS and help get people home from hospital and free up much needed beds …”
Hospitals are increasingly forced to close A&E departments to patients. In December, more than a third of health trusts in England (52 of 150) issued an “alert,” meaning they required urgent action in order to cope. Seven of the trusts could not provide comprehensive care. In the county of Essex, with a population of more than 1.4 million, every hospital was forced to issue a “black alert”—the highest level—in the last few weeks. Nationally emergency departments closed their doors to new patients more than 140 times in December. Last week, ambulances on 42 occasions had to be diverted to other hospitals due to A&E’s not allowing in more patients.
The weekend’s events and the Red Cross declaration prompted a torrent of media comment and government rebuttals. Typical was the Observer, which editorialised, “The government must get a grip” because the “NHS is facing unprecedented strain.”
Prime Minister Theresa May replied, “I don’t accept the description the Red Cross has made of this,” while Education Secretary Justine Greening said the comments made were “inappropriate” because Red Cross involvement was “not particularly unusual”!
Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s director of acute care, said “on the international scale of a humanitarian crisis, I do not think the NHS is at that point.” His defence is based upon comparing Britain with war-torn countries, as made explicit by Conservative health select committee chair Sarah Wollaston who declared baldly, “This is not equivalent to Syria or Yemen.”
In fact, just as with the imperialist-inspired wars in the Middle East, the crisis facing the NHS is a product of deliberate governmental policy.
In 2012, the health service of another country, Greece, was also described, by Doctors of the World, as being in a humanitarian crisis. There, too, brutal austerity cuts were to blame, as spending was slashed according to the dictates of Greece’s creditors and the world’s banks by more than €5 billion—almost a third—by the social democratic PASOK and Conservative governments. This offensive continues under the pseudo-left Syriza government, which pushed through a further €350 million in health cuts in 2016.
Britain has suffered cuts—in terms of a real-terms fall in wages the UK is second only to Greece—which have eviscerated the NHS and other vital services so that the Red Cross reported of Britain, “We’ve seen people sent home [from hospital] without clothes, some suffer falls and are not found for days, while others are not washed because there is no carer there to help them.”
During the 2010-2015 Conservative/Liberal Democrats government, billions in spending cuts to the NHS were imposed. A further £22 billion, again under the guise of “efficiency savings,” is to be slashed in this parliament to 2020. These cuts are to be implemented through new Sustainability and Transformation Plans being drawn up by health trusts in England, aimed at destroying the NHS and opening the doors to private health care that would be adequate only for the privileged few who can afford large contributions.
Having set the NHS up to fail, the government and the media will inevitably unite to insist that the answer to the present crisis is for the NHS to be made more efficient through the closure of “failing” services and additional privatisation measures.
In these circumstances, the response by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is politically criminal.
He demanded that May answer urgent questions on the NHS, as Parliament returns after its recess today, and lay out her plans to “fix” it. He did so while declaring that this crisis was “made in Downing St. by this government—a crisis we warned them about.”
Corbyn’s statements are shot through with hypocrisy. In the first instance, he presents the NHS crisis has having nothing to do with the policies of previous Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—backed by most of the MPs in his party. Then he makes great play of his role in warning the government.
Rather than offering advice to May and her predecessor Cameron, the millions of health workers who supported Corbyn as Labour leader based on his pledge to end austerity had every right to expect him to fight the government on their behalf. Instead, Corbyn has stood by as every struggle by health workers in opposition to these attacks has been sabotaged by the trade unions and their Labour allies.
Last year, 50,000 junior doctors mounted a wave of unprecedented strikes to protest the government enforcing an inferior contract and as a way of halting the ongoing destruction of the NHS. In March last year, junior doctors accused Corbyn of ignoring their fight, even when it came to the ritual of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Jeremy Corbyn’s official spokesman admitted to the Daily Telegraph that Corbyn had indeed “decided to focus on other issues rather than question the Prime Minister over the strike.”
Corbyn responded by belatedly making a face-saving appearance at a picket line in April, while calling for the government to reach a negotiated settlement with the British Medical Association. His ally Diane Abbott issued a “jam tomorrow” statement to the Guardian August 24, pledging a future Labour government would “rescue the NHS,” by allowing “its budget to grow in line with the economy” and “shift[ing] resources to frontline care” by “bearing down on the costs of the private finance initiative (PFI)” rather than ending privatisation.
The end result was to facilitate the isolation of the dispute by the health unions and the Labour Party and a sell-out by the British Medical Association.
In 2012, the Socialist Equality Party launched the NHS FightBack campaign warning that “the destruction of the National Health Service as a universal and comprehensive service free at the point of delivery” was underway. In order to defend public health care as a social right, not a privilege, the working class must begin to organise a counteroffensive against the government, which must be waged independently of Labour and the trade unions on the basis of a socialist programme.