Another privatisation scandal in the NHS has demonstrated once again how the Tories and the bosses are determined to dismantle our healthcare system. The unions and Labour must organise a fightback.
NHS England (NHSE) bosses have let the curtain slip on their true intentions of forcing through privatisation, as they threaten the award-winning Oxford University Hospital NHS Trust (OUH) with a lawsuit for ‘defamation’.
This threat comes off the back of NHSE’s plans to privatise cancer scanning services. In 2016, NHSE decided that PET-CT machines, paid for by taxpayers, should be put out to tender so that private companies can profit from them.
The PET-CT scan service that is offered at Churchill Hospital (part of OUH) was to be taken away and placed in the hands of private diagnostic service InHealth. This would mean that patients who attend Churchill would need to be taken by ambulance to another hospital for the scans, in a needless display of bad organisation.
The so-called ‘defamation’ was that OUH rightly stated that privatisation is lowering the quality and safety of care, along with access to it. This opposition to privatisation was echoed by patients, doctors and even local Oxford MPs. But NHSE’s main concern was lining the pockets of InHealth – and punishing OUH in order to send a message to other trusts who would oppose the further carving up of services.
Before they threatened a lawsuit, NHSE’s tactics included bullying and intimidation. Bruno Holthof, the chief executive at OUH, stated he was ‘warned’ by Sir Malcolm Grant from NHSE about not mounting a legal challenge against the outcome of the contract. Off the back of these threatening phone calls, OUH unfortunately gave in before the fight even began, relying on the voices of patients and doctors to continue the struggle against privatisation.
In an ironic fashion, NHSE made a foolish attempt to defend its actions. They had the audacity to act holier-than-thou after bullying OUH staff with legal threats, with their spokesperson stating that “taxpayers would rightly take a dim view of an NHS hospital diverting funding onto lawyers’ fees for legal action against another part of the NHS, and [OUH] were right not to attempt to do so”.
Not only were they ready to waste taxpayers money on a legal battle themselves, but it’s patently clear that taxpayers are in fact taking more than a ‘dim view’ at the loss of the contract. The public is rightly enraged that NHSE are leading the charge in implementing a destructive Tory policy of privatisation.
What makes this hypocrisy worse is that NHSE has released statements in the past stating that Richard Branson’s Virgin shouldn’t mount legal battles over contract problems – yet here they are doing it on behalf of InHealth.
Follow the outcry, there was a partial U-turn on this decision by NHSE. In a ridiculous settlement – which sees no benefit to patients, but only to InHealth shareholders – the scanners will stay in the hospital and be utilised by NHS staff. However, the contract will still go to InHealth, as they continue to siphon off much needed revenue from a strained healthcare system over the long term.
Criminals and cannibals
This is being allowed to happen even after the OECD provided a damning indictment of British capitalism by producing a report showing that the UK is bottom of the EU league table for provisions of MRI and CT scanners per patient. Moreover, waiting times for cancer treatment are at the worst level ever recorded, with approximately 20,000 patients a month missing out on vital scans and treatments.
Is it any wonder why the UK also has one of the worst outcomes for cancer patients in Western Europe, especially in deprived areas? These life and death situations are not the priority of NHSE bosses. These out-of-touch managers and bureaucrats wear their enamel NHS badges with ‘pride’ now. But they would happily wear Virgin ones as they cannibalise themselves on behalf of the Tories and the big businesses that benefit from our misery. With ‘friends’ like these, who needs enemies?
InHealth has built up a reputation for snapping up contracts from the NHS over the last 20 years. These include the £35 million contract for Kingston Hospital MRI scanners. It’s also known for its call centre delays, with patients having to wait up to 74 minutes on the phone to retrieve results.
This is part-and-parcel of the criminal amount of waste seen in the NHS today, ever since the introduction of the internal market by Thatcher, with hospitals having to bid for their own aging services and out-of-date equipment against the vultures of for-profit healthcare.
Fight back against privatisation
After this latest scandal was reviewed by the Oxfordshire Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee (HOSC), their outcome was to involve the current Torty health secretary, Matt Hancock. This is a hindrance to everyone and a benefit to no-one – apart from, presumably, NHSE.
It won’t come as a surprise to hear that Hancock’s record as health secretary is the continuation of where Jeremy Hunt left off. In one of Hancock’s most vulgar statements, he claimed “there’ll be no privatisation of the NHS under my watch”. That was in February of this year. But in the space of two months since these utterances, 21 NHS contracts worth £127 million have been put out to tender. This is on top of the £8.8bn lost to private companies in 2017/18.
Where have the trade unions been throughout this process of privatisation? Why has the matter been left with Hancock alone?
At the time of writing, the RCN (Royal College of Nursing), Unison and the BMA have all been silent on this shambles. Instead, the trade union leadership should have instantly been out in full force, pushing back against the threats and helping with any legal fees that came with the consequences.
Such a fightback should include rallying OUH staff to fight the contract at every level, calling for walkouts until the contract is fully back in-house, and appealing to the wider NHS workforce – not only in Oxford, but across the NHS as a whole.
This would provide a powerful example of how to fight against the privatisation and outsourcing that is killing our NHS.