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NHS protest

NHS protest, Photo: Socialist Appeal, Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-2.0, linked at bottom of article

There is no short-term fix, argues NHS worker Caitlin Southern, the NHS needs fundamental change, and staff will have to fight for it

Sunak’s £6 billion bung for the NHS sounds good but it won’t begin to deal with the crisis in the NHS. Every year the ‘winter crisis’ in the NHS hits harder and lasts longer, with this year looking to be the worst yet. This is for three connected reasons. Firstly, there are high Covid levels, including among staff. Secondly, there is the need to catch up with procedures that have been delayed since last March. Thirdly, there are growing levels of discontent and burnout among under resourced and overburdened staff. The combination of all these is set to form a catastrophe unlike anything the service has experienced before.

What is needed for the NHS is not just a massive injection of funds, but a complete change of approach. As with all crises affecting the NHS, this one is actually manufactured by a government that is ideologically committed to stripping the service to the bone and throwing the carcass to the private-sector profiteers under the guise of ‘saving’ it. The deliberate cuts to funding for training has caused a disastrous shortage of clinical staff, while the ever tighter squeezing of budgets means that fewer non-clinical staff are able to be hired in order to provide the vital support that too often goes unseen.

Already struggling departments are groaning under the weight of ever higher caseloads, while the unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that is management seems actively to interfere in the fight for the basic resources needed to perform vital duties. Whether this is denying that there is a staffing crisis, when teams are working at less than half strength, or failing to communicate shortages to staff, it adds to the crushing demoralisation felt by many people working in the service. If the NHS is to be restored, there must be swift action taken to halt the exodus of burned-out workers, who have given their all and been treated horrendously by the government while doing so.

Winter of discontent

After years of cuts, privatization and degradation, NHS staff need some big changes and we need them soon. This will probably involve us fighting for it ourselves. The confidence boost of a big victory will send shockwaves through the complacent establishment, and remind workers that all power, all strength, all value, ultimately comes from us. We need an end to down-skilling, outsourcing and below-inflation pay rises. We need the investment that has been deliberately withheld from the service by government after government, and we need a concerted effort to hire and retain the staff required to fill the 100,000 vacancies currently plaguing the service. We need to be able to take pride in our work because we know that we are doing the best that we are able to do, not buckling under the strain of having to provide lower levels of care than we know we are capable of, but simply don’t have the staff numbers for.

This year we look set to have a ‘winter of discontent’, and dedicated NHS staff will undoubtedly bear the brunt of it with increasingly frustrated patients, and the unendurable strain of trying to save lives with resources that are not available. All this while the constant message comes from the government that we simply must get on with it, while the rich are once again allowed to avoid paying the taxes that could provide the vast majority of the funding so desperately needed.

Our NHS is on its knees, but it did not arrive in this position organically. It is not the fault of the service, the dedicated staff, or even the patients who are so often accused of wasting resources. It is the fault of a government that, fundamentally, is ideologically opposed to the founding ethos of the NHS: healthcare is a universal human right that no one should be penalised for needing. If there is to be discontent this winter, let it be aimed squarely at parliament rather than the workers who need our solidarity now more than ever.

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