The PM's silent assent to the NHS death sentence
Now, with the next election approaching, we’re hearing a lot less from the Conservatives about the health service. The nation’s biggest employer didn’t even warrant a mention in the Queen’s Speech. This silence isn’t a sign it’s all ticking along merrily — most of the recent headlines have included words like “closure”, “critical” and “crisis” — it shows that the NHS has become electorally toxic for the Tories.
That’s not surprising when you examine the coalition’s record. When David Cameron arrived in No. 10, the public had never been more satisfied with the NHS; now the story is of swamped A&Es, chronic staff shortages and slashed funding for mental health services. And while voters were repeatedly told the health budget was rising in real terms, many departments have actually experienced sharp cuts passed off as “efficiency savings”.
On top of all this, the NHS is being privatised by stealth, despite the Government having no mandate for a sell-off. Last year, a majority of new contracts to provide services went to private companies. These firms can hide behind the NHS logo but siphon off a profit. Collectively, such providers received more than £10 billion from the public coffers in 2013. And according to yesterday’s Financial Times, around £5.8?billion of NHS work is currently being advertised to the private sector, a 14 per cent increase on a year earlier.
Earlier this week, the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called for an end to the privatisation of the NHS until the next General Election to give voters the chance for a proper debate. This is a welcome move, even if it comes from a party which oversaw a sharp increase in the use of the private sector by the NHS during its time in office, as well as disastrous PFI deals that bogged hospital trusts down in debt.
The marketisation of the NHS is based on a false premise: that markets are the most efficient way to distribute care. In reality, competitive tendering is bureaucratically cumbersome, expensive and it fragments healthcare as those with chronic conditions are treated by more than one provider. There are additional costs too — on admin, on advertising — money lost from patient care.
Next month, a People’s March for the NHS will travel from Jarrow down to Parliament. It’s a call to arms to save a still-beloved institution. Perhaps a crowd shouting outside the Commons will force the PM to stop keeping shtum.