Save our NHS

04 Oct 2016
Our understaffed NHS is a direct result of the government’s ideological attachment to austerity, writes Diane Abbott MP

The crisis in the NHS is becoming more apparent each day. Waiting times for cancer treatment, ambulances, GPs, A&E admissions and for almost all elective surgeries are lengthening, and targets are receding into the distance. The Tories have no way to resolve the junior doctors’ dispute. Many hospital trusts are racking up debt.

For the last six years the Conservative Party has sold the myth of austerity, promising that that cutting public services would “save money,” rather than choke off a sustainable economic recovery, squeeze the living stands of the majority and put our poorest citizens through unnecessary misery. The NHS is a big casualty of austerity.

The public accounts committee said in May that nationally the NHS is short of 50,000 front-line staff and the government is driving through £22 billion in cuts by 2020.

The glaring mismatch between government rhetoric and reality stems from two things. The NHS is being underfunded, while resources are being siphoned off into the hands of private companies. The effect on the ground has been 50,000 vacancies in the NHS and an all-time low morale among key staff. By contrast, other parties are doing well financially. One third of NHS contracts awarded by NHS England are going to the private sector.

What is happening to the NHS is nothing short of a catastrophe, and threatens to undermine its founding mission statement: to provide a universal health service, free at the point of delivery.

Labour’s task in government will be to rescue the NHS and to secure its future. As an immediate step we will provide the funding for the NHS and allow its budget to grow in line with the economy. The Conservative government is doing the opposite, hacking away at NHS spending as a proportion of GDP.

We will shift resources to frontline care and away from profit-seeking private operators. This means bearing down on the costs of the private finance initiative (PFI), which will otherwise be a colossal waste of more than £2bn a year for decades to come. We will closely examine the scope to shift to generic drugs and away from more expensive brands, looking to examples such as Denmark to make savings while ensuring NHS procurement continues to support world-leading drug development.

Staff shortages have left the NHS footing a scandalous agency staff bill, which rose to £3.6bn last year and created a culture of working unpaid to cover for vacant shifts. By filling vacancies we will take
pressure off staff and save the NHS money. This government’s actions are the complete opposite what is needed to address the current recruitment crisis. And with one in three nurses over 50 and set to retire in coming years, the NHS has no long-term plan.

Filling positions means being able to train enough nurses and doctors and attract them to the profession. Instead of bursaries, the Tories plan to fund nurse training through loans instead of grants to create an “open market” that will remove the NHS’s ability to place nurses where there is demand. A Labour government will reverse the Tories’ abolition of bursaries for student nurses and use a national education service to open the prospect of training to all, for free, throughout their lives.

The government has also led to staff morale in the NHS being at all-time low – disgracefully Jeremy Hunt has treated junior doctors like the enemy within. It has not helped their morale to imply that the only barrier to a seven-day NHS is their reluctance to work weekends, when so many of them are already working unsocial hours, sacrificing their family lives in the process. In contrast, we will treat the staff and their trade unions with the respect they deserve.

The 2012 Health and Social Care Act removed the secretary of state’s responsibility for the NHS, even while he threatens junior doctors and strong-arms NHS trusts. We will renationalise the NHS, preventing its breakup and reintroducing political accountability.

We will address the crisis in social care, which is deepening and is hugely costly to the NHS, by properly funding local authority budgets. Social care packages benefit patients and are less costly than hospital stays. We will raise the status of mental health sufferers and properly fund their care and treatment.

But the Labour Party is not just about opposing the Tories’ failed policies of austerity. It’s also about setting our sights higher about the type of society we want.

We can do this with an economic policy that is not based on cuts, but instead invests to grow our economy.

This will enable us to create good jobs and pay, build homes, provide public transport and provide quality public services for all, including our NHS.

David Cameron used to say a strong NHS requires a strong economy, but the Tories have delivered neither. Labour now has the policies and the plan to deliver both.

* This article originally appeared in the LRC’s Labour Briefing magazine.

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