The NHS needs a political U-turn to save it

This week, tens of thousands of people marched in London to protest against further cuts to the NHS. The proposed plans would cut services in nearly two-thirds of hospitals in England. They range from scaling back services to complete hospital closures.

The UK is the world’s sixth richest country. Underfunding the NHS is a political decision, not an economic necessity. It is part of a larger trend of a neoliberal model that is constantly pushing for the privatisation of public assets. Stopping corporation tax cuts (worth £7.5bn) in the spring budget could go towards helping close the NHS funding gap. These are choices; to treat them as otherwise deflects accountability from those in power.

The Government must be held accountable. Accountable for the people who have died, waiting for hours on hospital trolleys. Accountable for the millions who languish on waiting lists after being referred. Accountable for the systematic dismantling of an institution that has been in place since 1948.

Attempts to defer blame for the state of the NHS onto an ageing population and poor ‘lifestyle’ choices (smoking, obesity, lack of exercise) are trite. Every developed country has an ageing population; clearly elderly people are a lot more expensive to care for, but this problem is not unique to the UK. Before blaming people for poor health choices, it is important to remember that health is often closely tied to socioeconomic status, a link that is all the more pertinent in a country of extreme wealth inequality and increasing levels of child poverty.

NHS budget slashing will continue until it has been completely outsourced to private companies under the guise of efficiency. This is because healthcare is not protected from the neoliberal political agenda, an agenda which will have free reign after the triggering of Article 50. Reality is set to be a far cry from the extra 350 million pounds that was plastered on the side of that bus – outside the EU, the NHS is bound to fare even worse. We are already seeing the effects of the Leave vote on the NHS, with a British Medical Association poll finding that 4,000 European-trained NHS doctors – close to three per cent of the total medical workforce – are considering quitting. Couple this with the extra £2.8bn the NHS is forecasted to lose by 2019/20 outside the EU (not including the ever-growing funding gap) and we look set to be on track for a US-style ‘healthcare system’ very soon. The NHS cuts should not be seen as standing alone, or as calculated budgeting decisions. They are part of a wider narrative that chooses to ignore the lack of resources that are at the heart of healthcare failures. Instead, these failures are presented as a result of inefficiency, thereby justifying privatisation.

The expansion of the market approach has seen a huge number of NHS departments outsourced to private firms; George Osborne has been responsible for selling off more public assets than any of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors of the Exchequer. It is a worrying trend across sectors. A privatised healthcare system is an incredibly dangerous regression that will affect people’s lives immediately and drastically. It is not a mistake that future governments will easily undo. The NHS is one of the UK’s most important and valued institutions – but, without a major political U-turn, it may soon be a thing of the past.

 

Image: Garry Knight

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