Only a Corbyn government can save the NHS, it's now or never, says junior doctor Raisa Ahmed
The National Health Service is one of the hot election topics and rightly so. Whilst some people are irate the NHS is being used as a political football, the truth is that it has been a political matter from its conception in 1948. The stakes could not be higher, and this general election may be our last chance to save the NHS from the clutches of Donald Trump and American pharmaceutical companies. As a junior doctor, I feel extremely anxious about the fate of our health system. It is no exaggeration to say that the NHS is on its knees. Those of us working on the ground are acutely aware of the severe ongoing pressures, with healthcare staff and patients paying the ultimate price.
Ten years of failed Conservative economic policy often supported by the Liberal Democrats has condemned public services including the NHS. Spending for health as a share of the GDP is the lowest in a decade. Chronic underfunding along with spending cuts for older people's social care, youth services and mental health services has left staff often working in impossible conditions with soaring rates of mental health illness and alarming rates of suicide amongst NHS staff. From the former health secretary who forced through a new junior doctor contract to scrapping NHS bursaries for nurses to harsher immigration policies to new crippling pension taxes, it has made it next to impossible to recruit and retain staff. It is evident that this is a deliberate attempt to dismantle the NHS and the government has gladly ushered in private companies through their Health & Social Care Act in 2012.
Despite Health Secretary, Matt Hancock claiming, "no privatisation on my watch", it has only accelerated. The consequences have been disastrous for patients. The Care of Quality Commission (CQC) declared that more than 50% of A&E units are providing sub-standard care. Breast cancer waiting times are the highest ever recorded, patients are increasingly finding it harder to see their GP and rising prescription charges mean more patients are finding it difficult to afford essential medicines. The UK has also dropped from 7th to 19th position in infant mortality compared to other European countries.
In the first TV debate, where Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were asked, does the truth matter, it has been amusing to see the prime minister blatantly lie about the NHS. His pledges included an extra 34 billion pounds for the NHS, 40 new hospitals, 6000 new GPs and that the NHS is not up for sale. 34 billion pounds does not count for inflation so in real terms, it is still significantly less than the NHS needs. Funding has only been secured for 6 new hospitals. In 2015, Jeremy Hunt promised to hire 5000 new GPs by 2020. Instead, we are losing GPs and projected to be short of 7000 GPs in 5 years. Boris Johnson does not appear to have a credible plan on how he will hire 6000 new GPs.
Despite Johnson angrily claiming the NHS is not for sale when pressed by Jeremy Corbyn, a channel 4 Dispatches program revealed that UK officials have already secretly met and discussed increasing drug prices with US pharmaceutical companies as part of trade talks, which would increase the NHS drug bill from 18 to 45 billion pounds per annum. These secret documents were later revealed to show several rounds of talks that had occurred over the course of 2 years. It clearly shows the US's intentions in capitalising on a no deal Brexit which is why Trump has been openly supportive of Boris Johnson:
"the USA reserves the right to withdraw all trade, aid and communication upon the non-compliance of the UK to allow open discussions about the sale of all assets within and partnered with the National Health Service."
Unfortunately, the media coverage has been disingenuous with some scepticism at the thought of the NHS being sold off. The truth is that it is happening already with £15 billion worth going to the private sector in the last 5 years.
In an unprecedented interview, former Tory PM said, "trusting the NHS in the hands of these Brexiteers is like trusting a pet hamster with a hungry python." It should not come as a surprise that our prime minister is lying to us, he seems to have a knack for it. Remember the £350 million a week promised for the NHS for leaving the EU? Also, a sudden flurry of pre-election promises begs the question, why have you not done this before when you have been in power for 10 years?
With people suffering and some A&E departments being described as war zones, some people are questioning whether the NHS is a viable option for the future. Maybe it is better to move over to an American style insurance-based health system? Lord MacPherson, previously Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, referred to the NHS as a 'bottomless pit' that will always keep coming back for more money. This is simply not true. Compared to other G7 countries, UK health expenditure as a percentage of the GDP is the second lowest. Between 2001 and 2010, when there was a period of substantial increase in NHS funding, patient satisfaction increased significantly with reduced waiting times and overall improvement in the quality of patient care.
Paradoxically, whilst the US spends the most on healthcare, it's insurance-based system means it has worse population health outcomes and worse access to care compared to other wealthy countries. It is worth watching Michael Moore's 2007 documentary Sicko, which highlights the devastating financial burdens faced by normal working Americans, sometimes for the simplest of health ailments. To give a personal example, I had to have an emergency caesarean to safely deliver my baby. If this had happened in the US, depending on the state, the costs could be as high as $50,000 with insurance and provided there was no complications.
A decade of privatisation of public services in the UK, including the NHS, has shown that privatising essential public services makes it more expensive for users, more inefficient and inaccessible. There is no reason the NHS cannot be a world class functioning healthcare system which provides universal free high-quality healthcare if given steady and sustainable funding. However, for this to happen, political will is required.
There is hope and this general election offers a real alternative. As a doctor, I practice evidence-based medicine and I urge everyone, especially my colleagues in the NHS to adopt the same approach when it comes to this election. Whatever your personal feelings for Jeremy Corbyn may be, on examination of his voting record, he has consistently supported legislation to fund the NHS and opposed privatisation, including PFIs (championed by Tony Blair). Labour has pledged to reverse all traces of privatisation including repealing the Health and Social Care Act, which has been catastrophic and compounded the suffering of the most vulnerable people in this country. Labour has also promised an extra 26 billion pounds rescue plan for the NHS, paid for by higher taxes on corporations and the wealthiest 5% in society.
Whilst the mainstream media have gone into a frenzy about how everything is going to be paid for and maligned Corbyn for his "radicalism", more than 163 economists wrote a letter to the Financial Times, publicly supporting his economic policies. Labour has also vowed to scrap hospital parking charges for patients and staff, reintroduce bursaries and funding for health-related degrees, guarantee the rights of EU staff workers and protect whistle-blowers.
During the ITV debate, Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute to his friend, Jayne Rae who died from terminal cancer. Just the day before, she had made a tearful video recalling how she had arrived at hospital to find a scene that looked like "Beirut" and she spent several hours in severe pain whilst waiting for treatment. It was a sobering reminder of how desperate the current situation is. Unlike Boris Johnson's false promises, it was refreshing to hear shadow health and social care secretary, Jon Ashworth, not promise an unrealistic instant fix during a channel 4 interview. When pressed for a timeline, he replied, "I am not going to lie to voters... after 10 years of driving the NHS into the ground, it is going to take time to turn this around but Labour governments have done this in the past...
This election is being called the most important general election in a generation and it is because it will determine the survival of the NHS. There is a clear choice: be at the mercy of Donald Trump and US drug companies after a Brexit crash out or reinvestment into our NHS to make it fully functioning again. Do we want a high quality publicly funded health care system that prioritizes people over profit or a broken system where health is a commodity and not considered a basic human right?
On 12th December, a vote for Labour will mean a vote for the NHS.