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Man with bag of cash source: creative commons

The government should use the power it has to requisition private hospital beds, instead of going ahead with plans to let the private sector profit once again, argues Mona Kamal.

The number of hospital beds in England is currently at its lowest ever level. 17,230 beds in total have been cut over the course of the decade of austerity which began with the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition taking office in 2010 and resulted in the imposition of the longest sustained reduction in healthcare spending in the NHS’s history. Whilst the NHS was being undermined and starved of resources we saw legislation passed to enable private sector takeover of the NHS in the form of the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 and inevitably a steady transfer of activity from the NHS to the private sector siphoning off of taxpayers’ money away from frontline care and NHS staff (who’ve in fact suffered real term pay cuts of up to 14% fuelling a recruitment crisis in the NHS) and turning it into profits for private health companies and their shareholders.

Our government has knowingly created crisis after crisis in the NHS whilst bolstering the private sector and giving them every possible advantage to enable them to maximise profit from these crises. None of this is in the interest of patients or their carers. Neither is it smart use of taxpayer’s money given what we know of the inefficiency within the healthcare market and the examples of failures of private companies to deliver adequate care.

Here we are after a decade of austerity facing the worst healthcare crisis our generation has ever seen with NHS beds at a record low. A report from Public Health England leaked this week indicates that as many as 7.9 million people could be hospitalised with the Covid-19 virus within the next 12 months, a level of demand that the NHS simply will not be able to meet meaning that again, it will be the private sector that is poised to make significant profit from our illness and vulnerability.

Talks are now underway between NHS England and private sector providers to establish a framework that allows the NHS to quickly buy beds and services in the event that demand escalates. According to an article in the Health Service Journal yesterday, another option being discussed to reduce the burden on the NHS will be to ask private firms to take on the more high risk (and therefore less lucrative) medical and surgical procedures that they normally outsource back to the NHS highlighting the standard practice of ‘cherry picking’ of lucrative procedures – a practice that means additional strain on the NHS and which never should have been allowed in the first place.

Altogether it is estimated that 2.4million pounds of our money will be poured into the private sector per day to enable the NHS to access 8,000 private hospital beds for patients.  

It is scandalous that the tax payer is being short changed in this way, whereby money that in its entirety should be going to frontline care, is in fact ending up in shareholder dividends due to our government’s deliberate mismanagement of the NHS. Moreover it evidences the fact that the money had been there all along to finance our NHS during one winter crisis after another so patients weren’t faced with the indignity of being treated in hospital corridors, that it was there to deal with the cancer waiting times which have hit record lengths and to deal with our crisis in mental health care. When we see the images of patients lined up in hospital corridors waiting for treatment it is crucial that we remember and understand that their suffering is down to wholly ideological decisions and not necessity.

It is absolutely right that Jeremy Corbyn has demanded that private hospital beds be requisitioned and that beds “should be used by the NHS - rent free" adding that it is “disgraceful that private healthcare companies are making a profit out of the coronavirus". Of course many MPs mainly from the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, and unelected Lords from across the main parties have a clear material interest in pouring tax payers’ money into the private sector given their proven links to these companies. The crucial fact to remember though is that the government does have the power to requisition these beds. Just like the decisions to close record numbers of wards and GP surgeries this is a matter of political will not a question of legality or resources. This is therefore what we must be demanding – that the NHS has access these beds without charge and that the government acts in the interests of the public and not in the interests of private profit and its lobbyists.

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