The Tory-led Coalition wants all hospitals to become Foundation Trusts by 2014; but smaller hospitals will face the threat of merger and privatisation. Darrall Cozens of the Coventry TUC (personal capacity) looks at the case of George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton and the campaign against potential privatisation of this hospital.
The future of George Eliot Hospital (GEH) in Nuneaton is under threat. The government wants all hospitals to become Foundation Trusts by 2014, but GEH is deemed to be too small and not financially strong enough to become a Trust on its own. Waiting in the wings are two private companies and one existing NHS trust – South Warwickshire (SW) – that have been given the green light to bid to run GEH in partnership.
A campaign has been launched against the potential privatisation of GEH, for if Circle or Care UK wins the bidding war for partnership a profit driven company will be making money from the ill health of patients from north Warwickshire. As the Unite the Union leaflet explains, “Big Business has no business in our NHS or the GEH…..The NHS is being transformed from Britain’s greatest social achievement into a series of competing businesses.”
The leaflet goes further. “Taxpayers’ money should be re-invested in improving NHS services – not lining the pockets of hedge fund managers, company bosses and shareholders.” There are also other reasons for opposing privatisation: private puts profit before patients; private is not publicly accountable; private distorts the patient/doctor relationship; private costs more; private goes against the founding principles of the NHS.
An interesting comparison between private and public is made. The UK spends 9.3% of GDP on health and we get healthcare that is “universal, free at the point of use”. In the USA, “the world’s biggest private healthcare consumer”, healthcare costs 17.9% of GDP and still leaves “48 million Americans without any healthcare coverage”.
Until 4th November 2013, Frank Keogh was the Unite convenor at GEH. He is now a full-time Unite official for the West Midlands. Socialist Appeal supporters spoke to him about the campaign to keep GEH public.
“The GEH was one of 14 Trust hospitals named in the Sir Bruce Keogh Report as a failing organisation put into special measures. The Trust board is now looking for a strategic partner for a sustainable future to take it forward to foundation trust status. Both the private sector and NHS organisations are involved in this process. Back in December there were five organisations involved but that has now been whittled down to three: two private sector providers and one public, the SW Foundation Trust. University Hospital Coventry pulled out in February.
“Unite has therefore launched a major campaign to support the communities in Bedworth, Nuneaton and north Warwickshire. We believe that Big Business – Circle and Care UK – have no business in the NHS. We lobbied a Trust board meeting in Coleshill on February 26th to ensure that they knew our position – the only viable future is a partnership with the SW Trust.
“There had been some problems at GEH and the Keogh Report (no relation) made about 25 recommendations for improvement. Some 18 of the have been carried out and matters have improved as staff members at all levels have worked together to turn things around.
“The basic problem however is that given the £20bn of cuts and the savage attacks imposed on the NHS by the Coalition, the future of small district general hospitals is under threat. And the government has now passed Clause 119 as an amendment to the Health and Social Care Act which will give the Health Minister sole power within 40 days to put a Trust in special measures out of business, completely ignoring the wishes of local communities. The government has learnt from the Lewisham campaign where almost all of the clinicians, as well as the community, were against his plans to close the hospital. Now, he does not have to refer to anyone. The government said it would listen to doctors and not bureaucrats, but when they don’t like the message from doctors, they just carry on.
“The government says there is a need for sustainability. Yet if the GEH goes into partnership with a private company, the whole process will have to be gone through again at the end of the contract – some 7 or 10 years. It seems natural that a partnership with an existing NHS Trust, South Warwickshire, would be the best as they are about the same size and have the same culture, and SW is financially and clinically sound. According to the dictionary sustainability means longer than seven years, it means something that will last. This is not KFC or Burger King we are talking about. Hospitals are very complex organisations. We are not turning out fish fillets or burgers but healthy human beings.
“Unite is therefore pushing for a full-blown merger with SW. For example, that would create one Board. At the moment we have two – GEH and SW – and each one costs about £1m. So there is an obvious saving straight away. It would also be better for staff with the certainty of remaining within the NHS family. Circle have been involved in Hinchingbrooke Hospital and there has been a huge reduction in staff numbers and attacks on staff terms and conditions. Latest staff survey results there indicate that for many it is not a good place to work.
“If GEH goes down the private road, it will find it hard to recruit and retain staff. As a union we represent members in the private sector but we recognise that the first duty of the private sector in hospitals is to profit and to shareholders. I have a direct question. Do readers of Socialist Appeal think that profit should be made from people’s health? For us in Unite that is a step too far. The biggest assets in a hospital are staff members. Private involvement will mean attacks on staff numbers, wages, term and conditions for everyone from doctors to nurses to porters to cleaners.
“Unite has had very good support from GEH staff and the community as we have been giving out leaflets in Nuneaton town centre on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but there are some staff who think that nothing will happen as so many false alarms of mergers have happened in the past. In three weeks we have collected 5,000 names on a petition, given out leaflets and we also have an online petition. So if your readers want to sign it, it is at www.unitetheunion.org/GEH
“We also have a public meeting in the town on April 2nd at the Bermuda Phoenix Centre in Bermuda Road, Nuneaton. We have some key national speakers. In the town and amongst staff we are generating a lot of support. The Trust says that nothing will change for staff if the private route is chosen. We don’t believe that. We say that then only choice is with SW. This should be about patient care and not filling the pockets of solicitors, managers and companies like PWC.
“We have been working for some time with Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Minister, and we have received some assurances. Labour will repeal the Health and Social Care Act, but there will not be another restructuring. Many people who were made redundant are now being re-employed [Guardian of March 18th says nearly 4,000 were made redundant have now been rehired]. And these were mainly high earners. The reorganisation has been a costly mess when what should have been the main criteria was patient care. Labour will also repeal Article 119.
“Labour should send out a strong and clear message to the vultures in the private sector which are hovering over the NHS that Labour will work to ensure that the NHS is the only provider.
“Once we allow anyone to bid for providing services – including American corporations who will have the blessing of the EU – we will have lost the NHS as we know it. That is a real fear given that the NHS is the greatest achievement of our movement. It was created at a time of great difficulty in the immediate post war period, yet people rose up to demand it and provide it. It was celebrated at the Olympic Games. People will realise that something serious is underway when services they have taken for granted are taken away. It is already happening.
“Recent talk of possibly rationing services is dangerous. If people cannot see a doctor when they need one – at weekends for example – they will turn up at A&E. Who is to be the judge and jury of rationing? If the government spent half the time dealing with those involved in tax evasion and avoidance as they do chasing after so-called benefit cheats, we would have money to spend on the NHS and there would be no talk of rationing provision.
“Unite’s policy, agreed at its 2012 conference, was for the public ownership of banking and finance; and this year too we will have another policy conference and I am sure that the policy will remain. We are campaigning hard to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of tax. The government has said that we are a wealthy country and when the floods reached the Tory heartlands, money was no object. Why is money an object when it comes to health and local government spending? There is something very wrong when we say that we cannot afford to treat our sick and our old.”
Frank Keogh’s comments clearly expose the issues that faces the NHS: cuts in care and staffing, costly reorganisation, and the private sector waiting to come in to exploit health to boost profits for shareholders. It is a nightmare scenario. Yet the wealth to fund NHS care is bountiful. The problem is that it is in the wrong hands. The implementation of Unite’s policy of public ownership of banking and finance under democratic control could be the starting point for the social ownership of wealth so that society as a whole determines how that wealth is allocated.
We could then begin to do away with profiteering at the public’s expense and begin to build a society where the criteria for the production of goods and services will be the meeting of people’s needs and not the profits of a parasitic minority that leeches off public services.