Photo: Gordon Joly / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

The Tories are destroying the NHS and Labour has no real solutions so it is up to us to fight for a properly funded, publicly owned health service, argues Lucy Nichols 

Yesterday, Wes Streeting told the Financial Times that his solution to the crisis in the NHS would be to lean on the private sector. When interviewed, the shadow health secretary argued in favour of using private health companies in the short term to relieve some of the stress on the NHS. He argued that this would somehow reduce the reliance on the private sector in the long term. This sounds ridiculous because it is. 

There are currently 6.5 million people waiting for minor surgeries across England and Wales. If elected, Streeting claims that Labour would use the ‘spare capacity’ in the private sector to offer thousands of patients routine surgeries, paid for by the NHS. He also told the FT that he aims to make it easier for tech companies to push new technologies to the NHS, to improve ‘innovation’ in health. 

In fact, Labour has big plans to get the NHS ‘back on its feet’. For Streeting and Starmer, this means a reduction in waiting times, better access to things like dentists and mental-health services, and the introduction of more CT and MRI scanners.  

Rachel Reeves has pledged an extra £1.6bn to the NHS, though it remains unclear where Labour plans to get this money from after the Tories cut out the non-dom tax loophole that the Labour Party were hoping to close. It seems unlikely that Reeves will make up for the new £2.5bn cash deficit through cuts to defence spending. 

Labour’s proposals to get the NHS ‘back on its feet’ are lukewarm at best. The NHS is in such a deep crisis that serious change is needed, far more than Labour’s plans to give the NHS some bedrest while the private sector swoops in for a few months. 

Instead of trusting private companies with a charge as important as public health, Streeting should be committing to better funding for the NHS, and promise to provide safe levels of decently paid staff. This would be far cheaper, more efficient and not reliant on the shareholders of a private company trying to extract a profit from our ill health. 

Privatisation: another kick in the teeth 

Take the crisis in dentistry for an example. The privatisation of dentists surgeries over the last few decades has meant that today, it is almost impossible to get an appointment with an NHS dentist. A huge nine in ten dentists’ surgeries are closed to new adult patients, the number of dentists is the lowest it has been for a decade, and large dental corporations are pricing out smaller surgeries. 

Oral health is getting worse and worse, especially amongst children. Three in five children suffer from tooth decay, which affects poorer and more vulnerable children disproportionately. 

The Tories’ solution to this is very weak, including offering private dentists £15 extra to see an NHS patient that hasn’t seen a dentist in two years, or adding fluoride to water in some places. Labour’s solution is not much better. Streeting has promised to provide 700,000 more NHS dentist appointments, although last year twelve million people missed out on NHS tooth care. Labour have also pledged a variety of schemes to encourage toothbrushing in schools, and for more dentist surgeries in areas that need them. 

While Labour’s approach to saving the NHS isn’t quite as bad as the Tories’ non-solution, it largely involves painting over the cracks. Neither of the two parties have an approach that will actually put an end to the deepening crisis in public health. 

Labour’s plan to use the private sector to relieve pressure on the NHS is unlikely to work. Giving the private health sector any more power can only have negative ramifications for the NHS, diverting away funding and staff. Any growth in private health threatens the NHS, especially as more and more free services are taken away, ranging from medical prescriptions to earwax removal. This will have knock on effects for staffing, quality of care across the board and access to other services. 

The NHS must be properly funded, and private companies must be totally driven out. The NHS should be brought back into full public ownership. There should be no more reliance on private companies, whether that is to carry out routine surgeries, manage data, or provide staff. No one should have to pay for healthcare, especially not when that comes from private companies with little accountability. 

As a general election looms closer and it becomes clearer that neither the Tories nor Labour can be trusted with the task of defending our public services, it is up to us to fight for the NHS. This means pushing against the idea that privatisation and underfunding are anything other than ideological choices, and putting the case for a publicly owned, publicly accountable health service. 

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