In Owen Jones’s 2020 book Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Class, the author recalls a prominent Tory MP visiting students at Oxford and telling them that, despite what they may hear publicly from politicians, the Conservatives’ main aim is to preserve the privileges of the rich elite. This probably came as no surprise to the politically-engaged audience at the university that day, but seems to have escaped the notice of a sizeable portion of the electorate, who opted for promises of “levelling up” as well as “Getting Brexit Done” in 2019. The consequences are now upon us.
Public funding woes didn’t begin in 2019, of course. The phrase most often in the news now, by everyone except the Government, is “a decade of underfunding”. And the area where this is being most acutely felt is our National Health Service, which for 75 years has proudly been free at the point of use. Most of us have some personal contact with the NHS. For me, my mother was a nurse, and I remember hearing about the upheavals of the Thatcher years that saw the advent of ‘care in the community’, prescription and dental charges and the threat of industrial action by nurses that has only now become reality.
My father is, unequivocally, only alive today because of the skill and care of the surgical team who operated on him twice. Unlike Rishi Sunak, who boasts of his NHS connections, most of us could not afford to pay for such treatment at the point of use. Which is why, when dad, now 85, needed to go to A&E early in the New Year with breathing difficulties, we were horrified that he spent almost 24 hours on a chair, with one cup of tea and a sandwich to sustain him during the wait. Staff were doing their best, but to quote one nurse, “It’s absolute chaos.”
Safe in our hands?
As far back as 2016 ex-Prime Minister John Major was already warning that the NHS would be as safe with the then Conservative administration ‘as a pet hamster with a hungry python’. Little has apparently changed.
Sunak’s government is refusing to use the word ‘crisis’ about the current situation, preferring to say only that they recognize the NHS as being ‘under pressure’. Pressure they are keen to reassure us they are working to alleviate, but with a large part of the current problem being a woeful lack of staff (the latest statistics show that in September last year, the total number of vacancies was 133,446) and funding, it’s hard to see how the Government is going to prevent more excess deaths caused by long waits for emergency treatment. Compounding this, nurses and ambulance crews are now also on strike.
What the Government seems to have failed – or refused – to grasp is that we are an ageing population, and in order to sustain a decent care system, an increase in funding as a proportion of our taxes is inevitable. The Dilnot Report on how to fund a fair system of social care is over a decade old and remains unimplemented. Beds are blocked, while patients who could and should be looked after in the community languish in hospitals for months.
And yet, despite this abdication in care, ministers are still avoiding calls for more funding, instead opting for more egregious policies that undermine the very fabric of its founding principles: charging patients for their treatment at the point of use. In the last week, Conservative MP and Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid has written in the Times, arguing that patients should pay for GP appointments and A&E visits to ease wait times. This is despite evidence which shows that this is a detrimental policy, and serves to drive the poorest people away from the service, for fear of incurring unaffordable costs and exacerbating poverty – which in turn, simply deepens health and social inequalities. The more cynical among us point to it being a not-so-stealth-like lurch towards privatisation of the service.
The mess we are in
While the Government avoids calling the situation in the NHS a crisis at all costs, Covid-19, on the other hand, is not only acknowledged by the Government to have been one, it is being used by them to explain all of the country’s ills – as well as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, another favoured scapegoat. The mass exodus of EU workers in the wake of Brexit, the awarding of lucrative government contracts to unsuitable friends of the Conservative party, and the crashing of the economy by the absurd policies of Liz Truss do not feature in the Government’s explanation for the misery we, and largely we alone, are facing.
Trained nurses and doctors, in hospitals and surgeries throughout England, are leaving their profession because they are overworked, under-resourced and underpaid – not to mention made to feel unwelcome, in the case of our invaluable migrant workers. Many nurses use food banks in a cost-of-living crisis that has seen inflation rise to around 11%, with some food items increasing by much more. Yet the Government refuses to listen to their demands, let alone begin a conversation about pay.
In the opinion of Mick Lynch, Secretary-General of the RMT union, it is the Government’s ideology that is blocking negotiations. The rail companies are sent in to face his union, but the Government has the right of veto of any deal. Privatised rail companies raise fares, but shareholders are paid dividends, while workers have minimal pay increases, and the companies instead propose reducing maintenance, ticket office and platform staff, which according to the unions compromises safety, as well as putting jobs at risk.
It is a similar story, in terms of wealth distribution, at the Royal Mail, who are also in the midst of a long-running dispute. Driving test examiners, physiotherapists, civil servants and teachers have also followed in their wake and are undertaking strikes or ballots of their members.
What happens now?
Meanwhile, the Government’s response is to legislate for a minimum service on strike days. They claim their stance is on behalf of the taxpaying public, as though they are some separate entity to the workers. From the attempts to remove the right to protest, or take industrial action, to the promotion of one corrupt PM after another, they are hiding in plain sight.
It is time we put aside a biased press and thought for ourselves. The problems of the economy, and even of the climate, are not insurmountable. There are positive ways forward, if there is the will at the top. When Tory ministers talk about the need for root and branch reform, does anyone really think they are striving to save the NHS for the nation, or using the current, not unforeseen, situation to bring in ever more privatisation and put public money into private hands?