A glimmer of hope for the NHS

October 1, 2009

“The NHS is our preferred provider”.

These are the words of Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Health. A speech to the King’s Fund has been followed by a letter to TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, and an agreement of the Social Partnership Forum (representing NHS unions and employers). The documents are here.

This is extraordinary. After years of a deliberate and wilful assault on a public NHS,  this looks like being a real policy shift. Yes, all of us would have written a harder and sharper document, without the prevarications and the loopholes – but nevertheless there are requirements here that make it far harder for NHS ‘commissioners’ to hand over services to big business.

The  furious response from former Secretary of State Alan Milburn highlights the extent to which this is a break with the past. Milburn did his damndest to smash up the NHS when he ran it – and now makes a pile of money as an advisor to the private sector firms muscling in on healthcare. If Burnham was just coming out with the usual New Labour drivel, Milburn wouldn’t be so angry.

Trade unionists and campaigners have a responsibility to seize this opportunity. We’re on the brink of losing primary care now – all those vital community health services that make up over 80% of our NHS. Burnham claims he doesn’t want it to happen. Fine – let’s hold him to account. Let’s hold to account, too, the army of eager privateers in the Department of Health and the Strategic Health Authorities, and the scummy little bureaucrats and empire builders who hold so many senior management positions in the NHS, and the Labour councillors on Health Scrutiny Committees who have been unwilling to defend local services. Let’s get the message out to the army of MPs who are terrified of losing their seats: “Stop the break-up of the NHS”.

Why is Labour doing this? Unison’s Mike Jackson claims it’s ‘partnership’. I think it’s a desperate government flailing around for votes. Actually it doesn’t matter. We’ve got a window of opportunity to save the NHS. Cynicism is understandable – but a mistake if it gets in the way of a fight. Now’s the time to throw every effort into building the biggest, boldest and loudest campaign we can deliver.