George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton has been saved from possible privatisation – for now. Thanks to the magnificent campaign by hospital workers and local community users, privatisation plans have been halted. Darrall Cozens, President of the Coventy Trades Council (personal capacity) looks at the GEH campaign against privatisation and the future of the wider NHS.
George Eliot Hospital (GEH) in Nuneaton has been saved from possible privatisation – for now. Socialist Appeal previously published an interview with the former Unite convenor and now full-time regional official, Frank Keogh, on the possible privatisation of GEH.
At the beginning of April, what was billed as a public meeting in Nuneaton to plan the next stage of the campaign to keep GEH in the NHS turned into a celebratory meeting as it had been announced that the hospital would no longer be pursuing a process to identify a partner organisation. Two factors brought about this decision: firstly, the magnificent campaign against privatisation waged by hospital workers (in Unite and Unison) and the hospital users in the local community; secondly, GEH has achieved 18 of the 25 identified shortcomings in clinical care that had resulted in it being placed in special measures.
So for now possible privatisation – Care UK and Circle were hovering like vultures over the bones of GEH – has been averted. As the Unite regional officer Caren Evans said, “The community and the trade unions were key to the decision to keep the George Eliot Hospital within the NHS and not being parcelled up for the benefit of private healthcare companies and their shareholders”.
There are still potential pitfalls ahead, however. GEH is still £12m in debt and the future economic viability, given the planned £20bn cuts in NHS funding by the Tory government, raises the issue of whether GEH can stand alone. In addition, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) is due to inspect GEH. Given the major clinical improvements there is every chance that the hospital will pass inspection, but nothing is guaranteed.
A major new development too has been an “open letter” published on April 20th by another hospital, which claims that services at GEH are at risk. The South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust (SWFT) was the only NHS provider in the running to take over GEH and it had spent, it is claimed, around £100,000 to prepare its bid. The scrapping of plans to find a strategic partner for GEH seems to have angered some members of the Board of Governors of SWFT which claims in the letter that if it had teamed up with GEH “it would have safeguarded all services and made it financially sustainable within just three years.”
The letter continues, “In the absence of a plan and with the current annual financial losses of £12 million that George Eliot Hospital has predicted, there is a risk that this could lead to a significant loss of services locally. The South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust’s plan was intended to provide a Warwickshire-wide Trust which would: maintain all current services at George Eliot Hospital; support future investment in additional services in north Warwickshire; integrate hospital and community services; be financially sustainable within three years.”
The letter reflects the anger of some members of the Board at SWFT in not being successful in joining up with GEH. But more importantly it also raises the issue that the future of GEH as an independent NHS unit cannot be guaranteed. Even if it meets all the clinical criteria, the financial implications of being an independent unit still remain, especially as more cuts are on the agenda.
The future of the NHS
Over recent weeks three issues regarding the future of the NHS have been raised in the mass media. Firstly, there was the announcement at the end of March by Lord Warner, who served under Tony Blair as a health minister, that everyone in the UK should start paying a £10-a-month NHS “membership charge”. He has co-authored a report for the right-wing think tank Reform, which says that dramatic action is needed as the NHS faces an expected £30bn-a-year gap by 2020…and needs several new funding streams to remain viable. As has happened with many of the former ministers under Blair, such as Patricia Hewitt, they have used their “expertise” gained whilst in office to go over to the private sector to advise on how to fleece the state through privatisation. As Unite the Union points out, “Lord Warner works as an adviser to Xansa, a technology firm, and Byotrol, an antimicrobial company, which both sell services or products to the NHS and was “paid by DLA Piper, which advised ministers on the £12 billion IT project for the NHS” projects that he was responsible for when he was a government minister.” So no conflict of interest there!
Secondly, the outgoing head of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, stated in an interview in The Guardian in March that the health service, “will not survive after 2015 if austerity continues” as “the NHS in its current form is unsustainable” and if it doesn’t change patients will face “managed decline”. And what is that change? “There would be huge centralisation of services that are currently provided in many hospitals in order to improve the quality of care. Instead of every hospital having a traditional A&E unit, for example, there would be “between 40 and 70 major emergency centres across the country, with all other centres feeding into them in a network.” And, “similarly, the 300 different places which currently provide specialised NHS services, such as cardiac or cancer care or organ transplantation, should ideally reduce to between 15 and 30.” So NHS funding cuts will mean a centralisation of services to achieve economies of scale. What future will GEH have in such a set up?
Thirdly, the new NHS CEO, Simon Stevens, stated on his first day in the job that private healthcare forms would be key players in the NHS as it fights for survival. This does not come as a surprise given that he spent around 10 years working for the US company UnitedHealth, a company that is seeking to mop up contracts in the NHS as privatisation gathers pace. It also comes as no surprise that he “spent seven years advising the Labour health secretaries Frank Dobson and Alan Milburn, and then Tony Blair, between 1997 and 2004, before quitting Number 10 to join UnitedHealth.” For many under Blair the transition from advising Labour in government to careers in the private sector was as easy as changing shirts.
Cuts and privatisation
So that is the future for the NHS – more cuts, rationing, centralisation of services and more privatisation. The campaign to save the GEH has won a temporary victory and the campaigners should be applauded. However, that was a skirmish in a long war. And the only way to win this war is to ensure the sustained supply of necessary funds so that the NHS can remain as a publicly owned and controlled service meeting patient needs by providing free care at the point of delivery.
However, under capitalism that is impossible. We have been warned in the starkest terms that austerity cuts will continue until 2018/19 at least. And whenever the budget deficit has been eliminated, the Tory-dominated Coalition has openly said that the level of public spending that then exists will continue at that level, the same level as 1948. The only way for them to keep public spending at that level is to cut and privatise so that a bankrupt British capitalism is given a life line by making profits from the NHS and other public services.
- Take banking and finance into public ownership to guarantee NHS funding.
- Take into public ownership the drug companies and the suppliers of materials and resources to the NHS.
- Management of the NHS to be in the hands of those who work in the service and those who use it.
- Put an end to a crisis-ridden capitalism through a socialist programme that would put the real wealth creators, the working class, in control of how that wealth is distributed in society to meet the needs of all.