Is the 70th birthday of the NHS a call for celebration or a call for a total rethink?



Deputy Features Editor Dani Bass discusses the impacts and effects of what she perceives to be NHS privatisation

Aging is a process which hits us all. And for the NHS, as it celebrates its 70th birthday this year, it is no different. We see the NHS struggling to keep up with the youthful and prosperous years it once possessed. However, with age comes experience, and it despite its problems, the NHS isn’t ready just yet to be placed in an old age home and discarded. As students, we will be the ones to inherit the NHS and therefore must look for ways to improve it rather than hasten its decline.

Last year the NHS increased their spending on care provided by private companies from £700 million to £3.1 billion

There is constant criticism of the NHS. It is slated it for its long waiting hours and lack of beds and has recently been declared by the British Red Cross as facing a ‘humanitarian crisis.’ These serious concerns for the NHS are possibly worsened by the governments agenda to outsource services to private companies. This process began in 2012 with the Health and Social Care Act, but has recently been accelerating at an alarming rate.

Last year the NHS increased their spending on care provided by private companies from £700 million to £3.1 billion, with £1 billion being spent of Richard Branson’s Virgin Care. This saw the giving away of almost 70% of clinical contracts last year to private companies and the number is only expected to increase in the forthcoming years.

Epigram/Dani Bass

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jeremy Hunt, appears to be in favour of privatisation. In a recent tweet, he expressed his desire to see the US and UK health services work together, aligning our own health care system with one which optimises privatisation. Back in 2005 his book Direct Democracy which he co-authored, stated that the NHS should be dismantled. Despite this, the government still claims that privatisation is just a small and insignificant part of the NHS. By privatising the NHS through the back door in this way, there lies no public consent to these drastic changes.

With the NHS facing its most stretched and fragile state, the promises made by private health companies to significantly cut funding is surely a compelling one. However, this may be a very short-sighted view. The private companies will be using the very same qualified staff and recourses from the public sector, and therefore weakling the NHS.

By undercutting rival bids from NHS proposals, the private companies can succeed in securing contracts. Yet as soon as these contracts have no potential to yield profit, or they have to be removed from the hands of private sectors as they are inadequate at providing sufficient care, they are handed back to the NHS in the mess that they were left in.

Private companies taking on NHS contracts have witnessed a multitude of failures

Additionally, there is nothing stopping the company, a few years down the line, demanding more money for the contract. By this point, the NHS staff who had previously worked on this service will have been made redundant or moved to a different service and therefore the NHS will have no choice but to pay the company these extortionate rates.

Private companies taking on NHS contracts have witnessed a multitude of failures. This includes private firms abandoning their service because it costs them too much, was unable to recruit enough staff or often because of serious complaints about the quality of their service. On example, can be seen with private firm Circle who in 2014 landed a 10-year contract to run a hospital in Cambridgeshire. However, just two years after beginning the contract, they pulled out due to financial difficulty and substantial criticism of quality of care. This may be emblematic of the nature of our future NHS.

This is of course only one prediction. However, it is not a prediction which lacks grounding. We have witnessed a similar occurrence with the privatisation of prisons. When the management of prisons was contracted out to companies such as Sodexo, Serco and G4S to run them more ‘efficiently’ their offers seemed appealing. Sodexo was awarded a 15-year contract to run HMP Northumberland as the company said it would deliver savings of almost £130m.

However tempting, I am sure the government must now regret accepting their offer; an offer which was too good to be true. The reality was that prisons were in the worst state the country had seem them. Levels of riots, drug taking and self-harm were at the highest they’ve ever been. Not only could the private companies not cope with the management of prisons, but they had failed financially due to fines and much required reinforcements. This caused contracts to be stripped from private companies and put back in the hands of the public sector, leaving them to clean up the mess.

Hopefully Virgin, who have recently landed a huge contract with the NHS, can handle things better than the private companies which took over prisons. However, Virgin’s allegiance to the NHS has already been put into question. Even though it is the UK tax payer which has funded its contract, Virgin do not pay any tax to the UK and are instead registered in the British Virgin Islands; a tax haven. To further hinder their reputation, they have recently sued the NHS £82 million for not wining one of their contracts that they had hoped to gain.

The effects of privatisation can be witnessed here in Bristol. Emerson’s Green treatment centre, owned by private equity firm Bridgepoint, offers a choice of both NHS and private health care. Patients were handed a price list of the routine operations and encouraged to use private services rather than go for free on the NHS to save waiting time.

Mike Campbell, of campaign group, Protect Our NHS states that ‘More people are having to pay for urgent procedures, either by dipping into savings or by taking out health insurance. For those who can’t to pay, waiting lists grow. This provides a window on the future direction of the health service – one where the NHS is shrinking, and private healthcare continues to expand.’

Surly if the staff and recourses were moved from private to public, these long NHS waiting times would be reduced. By offering a choice of services, it sets up a competition between both practices rather than a pooling of expertise.

The NHS isn’t perfect, but as students we will be the ones to live through its future

Dr Porteous, a doctor working in Bristol, said the choice offered by the treatment centre is a ‘part of the wider privatisation, but the more sinister thing is it normalises people paying for the healthcare that is provided free by the NHS – albeit with delays and obstacles.’

The NHS faces an array of challenges in its path and it is debatable whether privatisation will aid its development or be its ruin. As the public sector has a responsibility to the state, it will always run, even if not highly efficiently. However, with private companies, their responsibility lies solely with financial profit and therefore have less interest in loyalty to its clients. With the way things are looking it is possible that the NHS will be eroded by default, without people realising it. The NHS isn’t perfect, but as students we will be the ones to live through its future and it is therefore up to ourselves whether we defend it or face the alternative.

Featured image: Unsplash/Hush Naidoo

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