Health workers campaigning outside St Georges Hospital | Photo: Peter Bird Health workers campaigning outside St Georges Hospital | Photo: Peter Bird

Health activists in Wandsworth celebrate the NHS and call for patient safety, pay justice and an end to privatisation, reports Peter Bird

People congregated on Saturday 3 July at St. Georges Hospital in Tooting, partly in celebration, since the NHS is seventy-three years old, and partly to demand its salvation.

The event was part of a national day of action called jointly by Keep the NHS Public, Health Campaigns Together, NHS Workers Say No, and NHS Staff Voices.

Keep the NHS Public report that there are now 40,000 nurse vacancies, and a predicted NHS shortfall of 250,000 staff by 2030, yet the government fails to adequately fund, train, and take measures to retain valuable staff.

Additionally, there are huge queues at many A&E units, a reported five million people on the post Covid waiting list for treatment, and little sign of a plan for community care.

Maggie (*), a nurse, attended the event carrying her own placard which included a picture of Aneurin Bevan and a message of thanks. Bevan, the Labour Minister who oversaw the founding of the NHS in 1948, once said of the Tory Party, “So far as I’m concerned they are lower than vermin.”

He called Toryism ‘organised spivvery’ since, rather than protecting the weakest, it presided over a free-for-all.  On the alternative vision of nationalised healthcare, he said:

“The essence of a satisfactory health service is that the rich and the poor are treated alike, that poverty is not a disability and wealth is not an advantage.”

You can see why Maggie, who devotes her working life to the service, holds him in such high regard.

Health Campaigns Together report that, over the last decade of wage restraint, pay for NHS staff has fallen in real terms by 15 – 20%. It calls the government’s recent announcement to recommend a mere 1% pay increase for all NHS staff a disgrace.

Rosa worked as an intensive care nurse during the covid pandemic. Since she didn’t want to risk catching the virus and taking it home to her family, she accepted being accommodated in a hotel local to the hospital. She didn’t see her family for eleven weeks. She simply worked, went to the hotel and slept, returned to work, and again returned to the hotel, then to work. She didn’t see her family or anyone else outside work.

This only ended when she fell ill herself and was taken off intensive care work. I asked her if it was a nice hotel. Rosa looked confused by the question – it has no relevance to her. “Yes, okay,” she says. “A lot of people (staff) fell ill, with Covid or they just fell ill”. I asked if they got personal protective equipment: “It was hit and miss”, she replied, “Mostly, it depended. We got plenty of food. That comes from the community. They are good to us.”

I am told the hospital employs agency nurses to meet the shortage, at agency costs of up to £400 per nurse per day. “And they offer us 1%!” says Maggie.

Another nurse, Alena, works in Pre- Op, a unit that assesses patient’s suitability to have surgery involving general anaesthetic. She said the pressure is intense. “It’s as intense as A&E”, she said, “I’ve done A&E too.”

The pressure is due to the high through-put in an effort to clear the backlog of work that has accrued, partly because of things being deferred during the pandemic. Alena works one full day’s overtime each fortnight: “They want me to do more but I need some time for myself”.

All of the medical staff I met that day, independently of each other, said that they were tired. They loved their work, they all said, but they were tired.

Jane is a nurse in general practice. She said:

“Nobody ever hears about this in a way they can understand. It isn’t said on television or in the papers. Events like today are not broadcast. We’re tired. Even without covid, we’re tired. We can hardly manage in a normal winter.”

She told me that increasing numbers of medical procedures were given to general practice and that all nurses studied in their own time to acquire the necessary new skills. She clearly didn’t mind taking on more responsibility but her job had never bean re-evaluated in relation to her wages. “The only way I’ve got a wage increase over the last fifteen years”, she said, “is by changing my job.”

Although the individuals I met were union members, I was unaware of any official union presence at the demonstration.

Keep The NHS Public warn of more restructuring through a new Health and Care Bill, which proposes to break up the NHS into 42 ‘Integrated Care Systems’ (ICS) and will lead to more privatisation. More than two hundred firms, including dozens from the US health insurance sector, are queuing up to develop ICSs. They may sit on ICS management boards and help write their plans, to shape which services will be provided, who will provide them, and where.

Over the last year or more, competitive tender for government contracts has been suspended, contracts to supply the NHS have been given to firms who have often supplied unsuitable items, and often firms receiving the contracts have also been donors to the Tory party.

A couple of weeks ago The High Court ruled that cabinet minister Michael Grove broke the law when the government gave a £560,000 contract to a business he had ‘personal connections’ with. I’ll spare the reader a summary of the antics of Matt Hancock!

We now have the appointment, as health secretary, of Sajid Javid who is pro-austerity, hostile to publicly funded healthcare, and who has a background as a paid adviser to JP Morgan, a US bank. With ‘spivvery’, Aneurin Bevan may have invented a new word, but it stands as totally understandable as a description of the Tory party.

It is necessary to remember that the Labour Party has changed since Nye Bevans’ day. The left of centre consensus in the party was broken in the mid 1970’s; they lost office between ’79 and 1997, during which time the NHS was privatised and starved of funds.

In office, from the year 2000 (they spent the years 97 to 2000 following the budget inherited from the previous Tory government), the Labour government increased spending on the NHS to meet the European average, around 8.8% of GDP, but they also extended outsourcing beyond the previous range of non-clinical services to include diagnostic services and elective hospital treatment, and also used private hospital beds at a cost some 40% higher than that of state provision. Later, they used the private finance initiative to build infrastructure at a huge cost, saddling the NHS with long term financial liability.

Jeremy Corbyn, during his time as Labour leader, attempted to revert to the left-of-centre reformism of the post-war Labour government. Although this proved popular and attracted tens of thousands into party membership, the British establishment, including the New Labour old guard within the party, militated against it. Keir Starmer, the current leader, is much closer to the Labour leadership of 1997 to 2010, and his woeful lack of serious opposition to the Johnson government indicates that he is more part of the problem than the solution.

Jane told me that she is finding out about the life of her grandmother who was an active suffragette. This example has encouraged her to attend today’s event. She understands that change comes from the bottom upwards, not the other way round. How right she is. To quote from Bevan again: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it.”

That is us. There could not be a more important time.

(*) Names have been changed


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