“Alongside aggressive policies that are damaging the overall health and well being of the population as a whole – plans to break up and sell off the NHS have been afoot for decades.”
Helen O’Connor, GMB Southern and People’s Assembly Against Austerity spoke at the Building The Fightback rally in support of the mass wave of strikes on February 1st. Watch the rally or read a published version of his speech below:
I worked as a nurse for 28 years in a variety of roles and in my latter time as a Community Psychiatric Nurse. During that period I saw a lot of changes.
The NHS was one of the greatest gains the working class ever made in the post war period. Harry Leslie smith who was an RAF veteran remembered what life was like before the NHS was founded. He wrote about the hunger, filth, fear and death that was a feature of life for working class people.
Before the national health service was founded no working class person could afford the week and a half worth of wages to see a doctor. Many people died in pain and agony of preventable, curable disease.
In 1948 health minister Nye Bevan founded the NHS, in the face of huge post world war 2 debt. The NHS transformed the lives of working class people. Mass vaccination reduced disease. Treatment for an illness or an accident was no longer reliant on luck or the ability to pay.
The two great pillars of the Welfare State were the NHS and the Social Security system and their purpose was to ensure no-one ever again had to live in conditions of want and deprivation.
But for the ruling class, who opposed these progressive, socialist measures, were forced to concede them because of the pressure from the labour and trade union movement and the election of a Labour government after the Second World War.
What the NHS has meant for the working class is perhaps best summed up by contrast with the United States, the richest country in the world. In the USA there is no national health service, over there you need to be able to afford insurance to get healthcare.
Employers control access to health insurance and roughly 44 million people cannot get access to healthcare at all. 65% of all bankruptcies in the USA are linked to medical issues.
Since its formation the ruling class has sought to undermine the NHS in one way or another. And that process has greatly accelerated in recent decades and certainly from the time I came from Limerick to work as a nurse in London in1990.
Alongside aggressive policies that are damaging the overall health and well being of the population as a whole – plans to break up and sell off the NHS have been afoot for decades.
All NHS changes are made in the name of modernisation and progress and they promise: better care closer to the community, better hospitals, better facilities, better training, and a workforce fit for the future… what you end up with is the exact reverse of all of that
Because in spite of what the spin says a cut can never deliver more and better.
Privatisation channels money that should be spent on patients into the pockets of company directors and shareholders.
One of the key features of so called reform of the NHS has been the rise of a cadre of managers from the private sector with no responsibility for, or indeed knowledge of medical issues. They are there principally to drive the market and control the workforce.
Elective surgery is now being outsourced by stealth to the private hospitals to the tune of billions – the 7 million strong waiting list is being used as an excuse to outsource surgery while they strip back what is available inside the NHS itself
Anyone who thinks the direction of travel in the NHS is going be any better are mistaken. The health and social care Act of 2022 has paved the way for the private companies to get control over the purchasing decisions of health care
Anyone who says even more privatisation is the answer to the NHS emergency is no friend of the NHS
What have we been left with following decades of marketisation and outsourcing? Fewer hospitals, fewer staff, fewer doctors, fewer interventions available on the NHS, and hospital wards have become dirty, understaffed and dangerous.
Patients are suffering neglect, significant harm and more younger patients are dying. And there are up now up to 500 excess deaths every week.
The plans proposed by the labour party to make GPs salaried employees will ensure that the private sector completely controls this key access point to the NHS- Telemedicine, zoom medicine, McMedicine is the music of the future for the NHS.
NHS staff deliver for patients in spite of government policy and not because of it.
There is no longer job security in the NHS, many staff have been out-sourced. They have lost sick pay ,overtime pay, unsocial hours pay. 130k clinical staff have been forced out of the NHS because some of them are earning less per hour than HGV refuse drivers. Workloads have become crushing.
One serious consequence of the appalling treatment of NHS workers is not commonly understood – it is directly linked to slipping standards across the NHS.
This is why thousands of NHS workers have leveraged their trade unions to lead them into strike action – they want this government to take steps to stop their colleagues leaving the service, they want safe, free healthcare to be protected and enhanced for everyone in this country
And giving them the pay they need and deserve would be a signal to the country that this government is serious about protecting the NHS
But we don’t just focus on protecting the NHS for its own sake: the NHS is not a national religion – its a vital necessity.
We recognize that the NHS exists to serve an important function for working class people.
There can be little doubt in our minds that a real and determined effort is being made by the ruling class to roll back every gain made by the working class including the right to free healthcare.
Crippling inflation, cuts in terms and conditions, attacks on the NHS and the welfare state, attacks on our right to defend ourselves will all create the conditions for human health to deteriorate even further.
There is no truce, no waving of the white flag by the other side.
So as socialists and trade unionists We start by rejecting the great lie that there is no money for pay rises- there was plenty of money for private companies to make profits during the pandemic.
Lets support every single strike in this country Lets demanding an end to privatization and the return of all out-sourced work back into public ownership. Effective resistance can only be achieved through unity and mass action of the type we have seen across the country today.
Society simply cannot function without working class people – nurses, ambulance workers, rail workers teachers. We don’t have to sit back and take a kicking from the bosses and the Tories.
When we unite and fight back we are unstoppable. We can succeed and let’s make sure our commitment is equal to the task.
- Helen O’Connor is a GMB union organiser for Southern region and an activist for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. You can follow her on twitter here.
- “Building the Fightback in 2023″ took place on February 1st, 2023 and was hosted by Arise: A Festival of Left Ideas. You can watch the rally in full here.
- You can follow Arise Festival on Facebook and twitter, and see what events they have coming up here; as well as listen to the Arise Festival podcast on Spotify.