Junior Doctors on strike outside Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital in 2016. Junior Doctors on strike outside Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital in 2016. Source: Roger Blackwell - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

The original model of the NHS is as viable and vital as ever. The Tories are actively trying to destroy it, but working-class resistance can save it, and turn the tide in other sectors too

The NHS turned 75 this month. We should be celebrating one of the most successful examples of how to organise society for the good of all: instead, this once world-leading institution is currently on its knees. 

The real tragedy is that our NHS isn’t falling apart because of old age, there’s nothing wrong with the model, and nothing wrong with its founding principles. The NHS is facing its worst-ever crisis because it’s under attack from this Conservative Government. 

Nye Bevan, the Labour Party politician who was instrumental in setting up the NHS in 1948, said:

‘Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community … No society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.’

In the aftermath of a world war and the resulting near economic ruin – a crisis which today’s political class would certainly find incapacitating – against all the odds, a Labour Party government managed to set up an institution which, for many of its 75 years, delivered some of the best health care in the world. While the reason for its creation may speak to the desire of the British state to placate Britain’s working class rather than the altruism of its leaders – it was created, it was free – and it worked. 

This isn’t ancient history either: a free at the point of use, universal healthcare system, paid for by general taxation, owned, run by, and accountable to public bodies, positioned the NHS as the best healthcare service in the world – as recently as 2015. But since then, it has fallen to tenth place globally and is falling fast. 

We are now faced with hundreds of avoidable deaths happening every week. A major staffing crisis with over 132,000 staffing vacancies, and over seven million on waiting lists. 

This speaks not of a broken model, but of service under attack from the insidious creep of privatisation from within, allowing the profit motive to undermine the coherence and quality of services bit by bit, all against a backdrop of massive underfunding and brutal austerity which (whatever the government claims) means in real terms an unsustainable year-on-year deficit. 

And to those who say we simply can’t afford to rebuild the NHS, don’t forget the billions wasted during Covid, and billions more now being diverted from NHS funding to private-sector hospitals instead of building the NHS. Not to mention the billions wasted on punitive deportation schemes, military spending, and obscene coronations. 

After thirteen years, the government has intentionally driven the NHS into the ground. The blood is on the hands of Conservative Party ministers, not the hardworking nurses and doctors who risked their lives to keep us safe in the darkest hours of a global pandemic. 

Matt Hancock himself told the Covid Inquiry that the NHS wasn’t fit for purpose while he was in charge. But let’s be clear, they want the NHS to fail. Their endgame is clear, they want to ‘rescue’ a broken service by increasing privatisation and giving more contracts to their allies. We simply can’t let them get away with it. 

The pushback has begun. At the end of June, consultants in the BMA, with a whopping 71% turnout, gave a resounding 86% yes vote for strike action; NHS Radiographers, for the first time ever, have voted to strike, and outsourced cleaners in South London Hospitals employed by ISS have been out on strike as well. 

While the RCN didn’t reach the arbitrary threshold set by the anti-trade union laws in their recent strike ballot – nonetheless a huge block of 103k nurses voted yes to continue striking. 

Junior doctors are coming out on strike again with a five-day full walk-out. This speaks to a huge upsurge in NHS worker militancy and a willingness to fight. There’s no going back and we must do all we can to support all of them. 

Support for NHS workers isn’t just vital because it’s about defending pay and conditions, it’s also an essential part of fighting to save our NHS. And the reason is simple. It is impossible to deliver a first-class service with exhausted, burnt-out, and demoralised staff. 

It’s no wonder that wards are understaffed, and staff overworked. Standing up for workers is standing up for the service.

But there’s another reason we must stand with NHS workers and fight to defend the public model of the NHS as we do. If we can safeguard our NHS against one of the cruellest governments the country has ever seen – and do so by harnessing the power of working-class people in struggle, we can show the way to turning back the tide of neoliberalism itself, win back other services – and go further. 

By winning the NHS and proving how young and vital it is even in its 75th year, we can and will show the way to building a better world.

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