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Emergency Demo: NHS in Crisis: Fix it Now! London 3.1.18. Photo: Jim Aindow

Emergency Demo: NHS in Crisis: Fix it Now! London 3.1.18. Photo: Jim Aindow

The political arena where we must operate is larger than Westminster alone, and we must move into it now, argues Tom Griffiths

It has not been a good few days in Parliament for NHS staff, for NHS campaigners and indeed for NHS patients (all of us).

NHS workers betrayed

During the current coronavirus NHS and Social Care workers have been called upon to work on the frontline to keep us safe. They have often had to work without proper resources and PPE, within an already failing system. Many have been forced to sacrifice their lives.

It is now estimated that 540 NHS and Social Care staff have died fighting the pandemic, and we have now the second highest death toll in the world of healthcare workers who have lost their lives doing so.

This is a truly damning indictment of recent government policy and its mishandling of our NHS.

After so much sacrifice and dedication from all NHS workers, hopes were high that the government would recognise their efforts.

Yesterday these hopes were dashed. Nurses and many other frontline workers were to be excluded from the recent pay rise announcements.

The online journal Nursing Notes reported:

'The Treasury has revealed that nearly 900,000 public sector workers are to get a pay rise, with teachers and doctors seeing the largest rise at 3.1% and 2.8% respectively “recognising their efforts on the frontline during the battle against COVID-19”… [However], the vast majority of frontline nurses received just 1.65% in April this year – the last rise of a multi-year pay deal which saw the average take-home salary of a Band 5 nurse rise by just 7%.'

Anthony Johnson, Lead Coordinator for Nurses United UK who are lobbying for a 10% raise for all healthcare staff, said:

'Everyone knows that this Government is playing with statistics.The majority of Nurses are top Band 5 and they’ve lost 6 grand or 20% of their pay since 2010. Nurses need to get organised and push party leaders and their unions to back a 10% pay deal.'

Jemma James, a Staff Nurse based in Newcastle, writing for Keep Our NHS Public said,

'Nurses aren’t just angry because of pay. We’re angry for a lot of reasons. We’re angry because of years of brutal cuts to health and social care in the name of austerity. Cuts cost lives – patients and staff. It’s that simple. We’re angry because nurses, carers and support workers are being paid less than a living wage and constantly told their professions are ‘vocations’. 

This pay announcement is designed to drive a wedge between public services. The government deliberately picked teachers for the highest raise as they’re the group who’ve been repeatedly targeted for being 'paid to do nothing' which is hugely untrue but gives people a target to aim their rage and frustration at that's not the government. They also picked doctors because nurses and doctors have had each other’s backs in previous pay disputes and strikes and they want to drive a wedge in there too.'

Given the last few months of weekly ‘Claps for Carers’ and ‘Thank You NHS’ signs on almost every street in the country, that this government felt it could get away with this is emblematic of the closed bubble of parliamentary politics and the scant regard its members hold for the welfare of NHS staff and even the opinion of those outside its doors.

#CorbynWasRight – The NHS is still on the table

In a car-crash interview on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday, in a move to distance themselves from the Corbyn leadership, Labour right-winger Lisa Nandy said that neither she nor Starmer would have disclosed the leaked document showing the NHS was up for grabs in US trade negotiations.

The documents were used by Jeremy Corbyn in the live television debates during the December 2019 general election, as evidence that contrary to claims by the Conservatives, the NHS was indeed very much still on the table in trade deal negotiations with the Trump administration.

It's clearly a no-win position being taken by the current Labour leadership – as they are still being attacked for failing to investigate the origins of the documents, while distancing themselves from Corbyn’s choice to share the heavily redacted document with the public, which has proved to be the right thing to do.

As left-wing commentator Aaron Bastani tweeted,

'It is incontrovertible the publications of these documents were in the public interest. Labour [is] supporting the ‘secret state’'

All day yesterday #CorbynWasRight was trending across social media.

The following day saw how wrong-headed this position by the new Labour leadership really was. Monday’s vote on the amendment for parliamentary scrutiny of post-Brexit trade deals, to protect the NHS from inclusion in talks with the U.S., was defeated 326 – 263.

It’s a serious blow to all those who have campaigned hard to exclude the NHS from trade deals, in the context of the huge popularity of petitions making the same demands (almost 1.3m signed the Keep our NHS out of US Trade Deals petition started by Keep Our NHS Public) and recent research that shows the overwhelming majority of the British public want to see the NHS protected from trade deals in a new poll commissioned by campaign group We Own It.

And weakness from Nandy and Starmer on the issue won’t be a great encouragement to anyone hoping for a positive intervention from Parliament.

If the NHS does end up on the table which now looks almost inevitable, drug prices will likely soar out of control and private companies’ influence in the NHS, which has already been at breaking point during the current pandemic, will continue apace.

The amendment, if passed, would have ensured the ability to provide a “comprehensive and publicly funded health service free at the point of delivery” that was not compromised by any future trade deal. It would also have protected NHS staff from having their wages or rights slashed by any future trade deals. But this is not what the current Tory-dominated Parliament wanted at all.

No time to sit back and wait

Taken together, recent events such as the trade bill motion being defeated, and NHS staff being hung out to dry even after their great sacrifices, proves that we'll get very little traction in lobbying of the majority of Members of Parliament, on either side of the house.

What this means is not sitting back and waiting for (the highly unlikely) resurgence of the Labour left, but to shift the emphasis of all our work onto growing our campaigns and supporting industrial action wherever possible as it inevitably erupts. More urgently than ever we must grow our reach and engagement, our members and supporters, our press work and our trade union work. Parliament is an almost entirely closed door to us at present. While it is still prudent to foster those few fruitful relationships with MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, who was right to attack the Government on the NHS and trade deals, and keep a close eye on policy developments, it is a moment where we must uncouple ourselves from the parliamentary focus of our campaigning over the last five years.

Campaigns like the People’s Assembly Against Austerity (who have campaigned tirelessly against the cuts both in the NHS that have left it so underprepared for the current pandemic and the society-wide austerity which only aggravated the situation), Keep Our NHS Public (who campaign hard to stop the privatisation of the NHS), NHS Staff Voices (who are bringing together networks of NHS staff from all sectors and specialisms to fight back) are now more vital than ever.

On Wednesday 29 July at 5pm, NHS workers will be marching from St Thomas' Hospital to Downing Street for pay justice for NHS and key workers. Please join if you can.

If you want to get involved, go to the following sites to find out more:

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity

Keep Our NHS Public

NHS Staff Voices

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