It’s the tiny minority of the Tory government and their corporate friends, and we must all protest their attempts to destroy this valuable public institution on March 4th, insists William Hendy
Throughout my career as a health worker I have worked under the assumption that everyone in the UK is entitled to healthcare. It was the collective nature of the NHS that drew me to the profession; that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you came from, you get the treatment you need, when you need it, courtesy of the people.
As health professionals we work better this way, unencumbered by the politics of profit and the woes of free-market competition, we can focus purely on what’s important: the wellbeing of our patient.
And this ethos of free universal healthcare has been drummed into every health professional who trained in the UK. We are consistently told not to discriminate based on ethnic background, gender, disability, race, sexual orientation or religion. And at no point in our studies are we taught how to ensure the patient can afford treatment, or if they are eligible for care in the UK.
How strange it feels for us on the ground then, as this ethos is being dissolved under the Tories and speculations abound around an insurance-based system. With the next story exposing the deepening crisis within the NHS just around the corner, we are being drip-fed the elites’ alternatives to a service that should be completely free to all. We’re steadily being conditioned to accept a system whereby large sections of society are bound to fall through the cracks.
Cutting services, building bombs
Yet the central assumption here - that we can't afford the health service in its current form - must be challenged. That we can’t afford to look after people, but we can afford to bomb people is an absurdity. Especially since the renewal of Trident is estimated to cost up to ten times the current NHS deficit.
And despite all the promises, the government seems to have made no discernible effort to crack down on tax avoidance and at the same time have introduced tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy. The idea that we can’t afford the NHS is a political invention, not an immovable reality, designed to push through further privatisation so that the Tories can line the pockets of their friends (and indeed themselves) at our expense. And make no mistake the cost is a human one, not just financial.
Spirit of the NHS
I believe that a significant proportion of the 1.3 million NHS employees feel the way I do, that choosing to work in healthcare is on some level a rejection of exploitative capitalist ideas in favour of something more human and meaningful, particularly when it is in this spirit that the profession is promoted.
Nobody embarks on a career in health because they think they will get rich; rather many do it for the vocation and the call to create a better world, even if for one person at a time. Indeed it’s the reason I have seen so many colleagues reject the prospect of promotion to senior levels (with the tenure and pay increases that come with it) - because they didn’t sign up to play politics, and they certainly didn’t sign up to toe the line and keep order on behalf of corporate interests while their department is liquidated, throwing their working lives and those of their colleagues into chaos.
Keeping it running, not running it down
Over the last year the NHS has sustained a slew of xenophobic attacks directed at both staff and patients. These are nothing more than an attempt to undermine the NHS, distract from the real issues and divide NHS supporters, turning those willing to accept xenophobic concessions against their comrades.
The estimated cost of so-called ‘health tourism’ is a contentious figure ranging from £110 million to £2bn per year. Even if we accept the highest figure (which I certainly don't) it represents a mere 1.7% of the NHS budget and barely touches the £22bn of proposed cuts to the service. Yet cutting health tourism is being proposed as a solution to the crisis when in reality it is likely to create more problems than it solves.
A research briefing to parliament dated 25th November 2016 reveals the extent to which we rely on foreign nationals in the health service. Currently, 20% of all NHS staff have not identified themselves as British nationals and between them have reported 199 non-British nationalities. This figure includes 26% and 16% of foreign doctors and nurses respectively. Without these dedicated members of staff, the NHS would cease to function.
We need to be supporting the NHS so we can continue to attract skilled workers wherever the come from, as well as restoring bursaries to train many more aspiring young health workers already in this country. Not alienating all of the above and driving them away because of the newfound uncertainty and degradation around these professions in the UK.
A clear “no”
The struggle that we face now is for the soul of our health service and the existence of the NHS as we have known it; for the supportive conditions for workers and patients that we would expect; ultimately, for the kind of society that we want to live in.
It must be made clear that front line NHS staff will not double as border guards, we will not be asking for evidence of ‘care entitlement’ prior to treatment, nor will we seek proof of ability to pay for treatments.
We should argue that this constitutes a change in working conditions and job specification, and is contrary to the values of the NHS that we all hold dear.
The first immediate place I can think of to make this loud and clear is on the March 4th NHS national demonstration - called by Health Campaigns Together and The People’s Assembly in opposition to cuts, closures, pay restraint and privatisation- which looks to be the biggest ever and which I urge all to promote and attend.
There is sure to be a large anti-racist presence, given the huge protests of recent weeks. In parallel, I anticipate urgent action on these issues, in our workplaces and beyond, from our health unions.
The fight for our health rights is on, and all of us - health workers, patients and public - must hasten to join it.