Wes Streeting Wes Streeting. Photo: Public Domain

Wes Streeting’s attack on NHS workers and their unions is a sign of the privatisation agenda, argues Terina Hine

Wes Streeting has declared war against healthcare unions just days before members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) go on strike for the first time in their 106-year history.

After suggesting headline writers were to blame for the inflammatory language, Streeting went on to reiterate his message. The desperate state of the NHS is the fault of medical staff; Labour in office would not give in to the RCN’s pay demands; as for the BMA (the doctor’s union) they are “spoiling for a fight”. It appears the Telegraph’s headline, ‘Labour Vows War on Hostile Health Unions’ was accurate after all.

But the fight is not just with the healthcare unions, it is with the NHS itself. After Keir Starmer scrapped his pledge to end NHS outsourcing in the summer, Streeting has made clear the party intends to accelerate NHS privatisation.

Pressure has been mounting on the health service for years, and overburdened staff have responded with their feet. There are now 93,000 staff vacancies across the NHS, 40,000 nurses left the profession in the past year alone, while 48% of consultant posts remain unfilled. In social care, there are over 100,000 vacancies. NHS nurses are the lowest paid in Europe, and we have the lowest number of doctors per head.

It is increasingly difficult to see a GP, A&E departments are on life support, ambulances queue while 999 patients wait for record times, and non-urgent surgery is postponed, often indefinitely. None of this is new, but things have moved from a pre-pandemic crisis footing to critical, and recruitment and retention of staff becomes ever harder.

It is common knowledge that NHS staff work twelve-hour days, that nurses rely on food banks and are suffering, like millions of other workers, from real-term pay cuts. Improving pay and conditions would help alleviate some of the stress.

Streeting is correct to say that patients are suffering, that thousands are in pain, and that the government has no plan. But it is clearly not the fault of the workers, nor the unions who represent them. Rather, blame lies squarely at the feet of a decade of Tory neglect, following an era of New Labour PFI and backdoor privatisation.

The threat of privatisation

After his broadside against the unions, Steering used his Sunday Telegraph interview to attack staff, saying a Labour government would expect better standards from the NHS, that it would require an end to the “something for nothing culture”. He then added that the NHS must reform or die”.

So what are these reforms? In a word, outsourcing. Streeting said that under Labour “hundreds of thousands” more NHS patients would be sent into the private system. During the pandemic, private hospitals were used by the NHS in the way Streeting is suggesting, but it didn’t go well. Not only did it cost the public purse £2 billion, but according to a report by the Health Service Journal, London trusts were ‘incensed’ that the private sector were not stepping up when needed, but instead were ‘taking the piss and walking off with the money’.

As shadow health secretary, Streeting should know that the NHS is more cost effective than private healthcare, and that the private sector is not free. Outsourcing NHS care to private hospitals merely takes money from the NHS and puts it into private hands. Perhaps donor John Armitage has clouded his judgement. Armitage, who has over £800m invested in private healthcare, donated £15,000 last year to Streeting’s office.

But is not just about money, it is also about care. The private sector simply cannot do the same work as NHS hospitals, and when anything gets complicated, goes wrong, or requires intensive-care treatment, patients are transferred back into the NHS. Plus there are serious concerns about patient safety; the sector is poorly regulated, with coroner and regulator suggested improvements repeatedly ignored.

Streeting talks of using non-dom taxes to pay for extra resources, but this would amount to little more than pennies in comparison with the NHS budget. And other than paying for those private hospitals, he appears unsure as to what to spend it on. Certainly not wages.

But Wes Streeting and the other Blairite acolytes are not interested in saving the NHS, their suggested reforms are politically not medically motivated. So, instead of demanding a properly funded and nationalised NHS, with staff supported and paid a decent wage, Labour’s shadow health minister has made clear he wants to fight the health unions, undermine staff and further privatise the service.

Streeting was right. This is a war, it is a war against a key public service, and all who support the NHS must fight for its survival.

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