We have been saying the NHS is under serious threat for so long now it gives no pleasure to see it happening on such a scale that you can’t avoid it. The long-awaited Workforce Plan promises much but is long overdue – we welcome that, but ask: look at the record.
Our remit has always been and remains to uphold and defend the founding principles of the NHS. Yet now, as widespread industrial action by doctors is looming, it is still apparent that these principles are as far from being cherished as they are long neglected. We see buildings literally crumbling, legacies of past corner cutting (such as aerated concrete roofs) coming home to roost – or, ironically, leaving structures so weak a nesting bird might well look to find alternative accommodation. We see our colleagues, facing real-terms cuts in income of at least 25% since the early noughties, acting through sheer frustration and desperation, and withdrawing their labour as the last resort. No one goes into medicine to increase suffering. Yet the deliberate and systematic undermining of our NHS, reflected in fragmentation, privatisation and an absolute lack of workforce planning until the very last year before a General Election, has left many struggling to work and struggling to stay, as they see their own colleagues leave for pastures new and leave the NHS.
It need not have been this way. This was always about choices. Deliberate and considered. Austerity, we now see, did not work, and the public services it deliberately ignored and starved continue to decline. We go further. We say, as we always have, that the only way to give us an NHS true to its principles is yes, to increase staffing – and the new workforce plan promises much on that score. That is welcome. But the NHS needs more funding, much more. How many tired cliches must we see trotted out by government departments along the lines of ‘We are spending HUGE sums of money, more than has been spent since year X’ when it is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘lots’ simply is not ‘enough’ and was never going to be?
But it is so much more than that. It’s not just about the money – any more than the strikes are just about the money. It is about value. It is about political choice. It is about honesty – the honesty to say ‘the NHS needs this much – and that might mean paying a little more tax’. The honesty to guarantee the promised new training levels will be kept to – who now doubts the proud boast of ’40 new hospitals’ was as full of holes as many now crumbling hospital roofs? For years now, this country has withered and warped under the prevalent lie that you can have European standards of public services while paying USA levels of income tax. It has been sold the myth that privatisation offers more choice, more efficiency, more thrift – when, as the pandemic showed with searing pain, all too often it means none of those things when it comes to healthcare. It can just mean more money for those who are already wealthy, as the majority (whose money it ultimately is) suffer more than they should have, or needed to.
We are coming to an end. The end of a government. What it absolutely must not be is the end of the NHS. All of us have a chance, now, to fight for that. As the general election draws near, it is not hyperbole to say that the fate of the NHS rests on the outcome. There used to be an old mantra, employed to help people as they learned to type on the clattering mechanical wonders that were typewriters: ‘Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the Party’. With apologies for the gender-insensitivity in that phrase, its sentiment has never been more true now for the NHS: ‘Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of the NHS’. Remember all those lid-banging, rainbow-painting days as people lionised the NHS, as it was used to bind people in the very worst of the pandemic? Remember, then, how quickly that was forgotten – put back in the cupboard, as the NHS was once again conveniently NOT given what it needed, and its good people brought not just to their knees but to strike action. Will the promised new staffing levels be yet another act of flag-waving expediency, as an election looms? Remember. And, however you can, act. Our NHS belongs to us all. Stay together. Act together. Protect the NHS. For all our sakes.