NHS demonstration, February 2018. Photo: David Bailey NHS demonstration, February 2018. Photo: David Bailey

Caitlin Southern reports on the NHS Staff Voices Conference which brought together workers from across the service and around the country

The inaugural NHS Staff Voices virtual conference was attended by 50 NHS staff and activists from all over the country, allowing a unique opportunity for healthcare workers across normally disconnected disciplines and areas to communicate and discuss their concerns. The first half of the conference was a series of talks on various issues facing the NHS and reports on successful activism, with the remainder being a group discussion on issues facing the health service and how to go about organising within it. There was discussion on how to mobilise local activist groups, given the professional complications that can often arise from individual actions or whistleblowing.

Arising from the discussion was the clear need for a way for staff across different departments, hospitals and trusts to communicate and the decision was taken to create a collaborative newsletter to allow staff to raise issues and communicate across disciplines. It is also vital to connect in campaigns with patients and their families as it can often seem that decisions are made from on high and presented as something that cannot be fought when in reality the application of pressure from below can often result in victory.

The importance of trade union activity was raised as it is easier for the union reps to raise concerns without being victimised and ostracised, although the lamentable inactivity of the trade unions to fight the government on healthcare issues both in general and in the current climate was also mentioned. The importance of learning from other sectors was raised, for example the NEU actions to prevent the premature return to schools for the majority of children. There was mention of the fact that the unions involved in the health service have committed to fighting for pay rises for staff in the light of the pressures caused and highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis, which is a good start but doesn’t go nearly far enough to address the structural problems that it faces.

The conference raised issues such as the inherent failings of privatisation and the difficulties it causes in solidarity action when workers even within the same department feel that they are not part of the same team as some are outsourced while others are directly employed by the NHS. A major reason for the halting, creeping nature of privatisation is that it simply doesn’t work, with the NHS often having to step in to pick up the pieces when a private provider fails to deliver on a lucrative contract.

There was good discussion of areas to focus on for campaigning, with the possibility of linking up with organising groups such as We Own It and Keep Our NHS Public in their drives to remove failing private companies from operating NHS services, to ensure that the NHS isn’t included in trade deals that would result in poorer care and worse patient outcomes, and the need to remove the discriminatory migrant charges for access. It was established that there must be an NHS workers inquiry into this first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in order to determine whether any lessons have been learned from it.

Coming away from the conference it seems that although there is anger at the way things are going, there is also hope and strength to organise and fight. How we do that in these uncertain times may have to be through physically distanced actions and remote communication but by staying involved and connected we can win individual campaigns and use that sense of empowerment to fight back against the deliberate attempts to turn our NHS into a for-profit healthcare provider.

NHS Staff Voices is holding a follow-up activist meeting on Tuesday 28 July at 6:30pm.

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