A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting of health workers where Ann Keen MP spoke. Keen is now some sort of Junior Minister for Health, with a specific responsibility for workforce planning. Her credentials are that once upon a time – a very, very long time ago – she used to be a District Nurse. She told us that she knew the last two years had been incredibly difficult for the NHS and for us health workers who did such a brilliant job, and she was listening to us, and she really, really wanted to work with us. A colleague’s comment was, “Don’t you just want to slap her?” The same phrase had gone through my head listening to Keen. Patronising doesn’t begin to describe her manner.
The trouble is, we’re being encouraged to believe this nonsense by senior union officials who should know better. We’re being told that the bad old days of Blair and Hewitt are over, but now we’ve got Gordon Brown and that nice Alan Johnson, and Ann Keen who’s just dying to work with us. The bad times for the NHS are over, and things can only get better.
Is this true? If it is, there’s certainly very little evidence so far. It’s important to remember that Brown is the architect of PFI – the horror story that continues to bleed our hospitals dry. Let’s remember also that Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer demanded this year’s effective pay cut for health workers, and he and Johnson enthusiastically carried this forward under the new regime. We’ve seen the announcement of ‘FESC’ a few weeks ago – a frightening scheme that hands over the planning and purchasing of NHS services to private sector companies (including the particularly unscrupulous US company United Health). Darzi’s plans for the NHS are about cuts and closures, dressed up in lovely rhetoric about world class services, innovation, and care closer to home. ‘Modernisation’ apparently demands closing maternity units, A&E Departments, and – in the near future – an awful lot of hospitals.
We’re also continuing to see the stark evidence of hospitals in financial crisis, and the vicious service cuts arising from this. One example comes from a story in yesterday’s Evening Standard, under the headline, “Wards and staff are cut at bankrupt hospital”. This is about the Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust. The story is worth checking out as an illustration of the realities of New Labour’s NHS. The Trust is bankrupt, and surviving on handouts from the Department of Health. Hospital bosses are trying to save £23 million in a single year. The Standard reports that drugs budgets are being slashed, and operating theatres merged. Staff have been ordered to question every decision that “may disadvantage the hospital’s financial situation” – with no such emphasis on safeguarding patient care.
The reason for the deficit isn’t that complicated. The Trust has to pay off a £155 million PFI scheme for the Princess Royal University Hospital, opened only four years ago. They can’t generate enough income to pay off the debt, thanks to Labour’s record of siphoning off patients to the private sector, and fiddling around with the national tariff. So the Trust slides deeper and deeper into chaos, its debts rise year on year, and Trust bosses now have no conceivable way of getting out of this mess. The savage cuts being driven through now certainly won’t solve the crisis. Let’s be clear that this has got nothing at all to do with incompetent managers failing to balance the books. This is the direct result of Labour’s policies on health.
So is the NHS crisis over? Sadly, no. Do they want to work with us? Yes, but only so long as we compromise on every key issue, and allow our NHS to be dismantled. It has never been more important to build a massive, militant campaign to defend the NHS.