OPINION: The West Wolds Branch Labour Party column with Mike Cooper

NHS staff work extremely hard to care for their patients.
NHS staff work extremely hard to care for their patients.

The National Health Service is 70 years old this year. This means that most of us who are alive today have never known life without the safety net of the NHS.

We have never faced the problem of being unable to pay for a visit to the doctor or the hospital, which was a very real problem for many in Britain before the Labour Party introduced universal access to comprehensive health care, free at the point of use and funded from general taxation, in 1948.

Since then, most of us have probably taken the NHS for granted as something that has always been there for us and always will be, for the rest of our lives.

So why do I no longer feel quite so safe in the knowledge that I can depend on NHS care when I most need it?

The main reason has nothing to do with staff providing the care.

The most recent NHS Improvement quarterly report (to December 31 2017) says: ‘NHS staff have worked extremely hard to care for patients … Overall, providers have succeeded in treating more patients within key operational standards, despite the extremely challenging environment they have been working in.’

This ‘extremely challenging environment’ has been deliberately created by successive coalition and Conservative Governments since 2010 and the politics of austerity.

It is not only that too little money is being provided, but also a matter of who it is being provided to and how.

Perverse incentives distort the system in favour of saving money, potentially at the expense of patient care.

For instance, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in some areas are now offering to pay GPs up to 50% of the money saved by not referring patients to hospital.

How can patients be sure that doctors are acting in their best interests under such conditions?

There has also been deliberate fragmentation of what used to be a linked and unified national service in order to make more of the NHS budget available to private providers.

Under the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, CCGs are required to open up dozens of services to tender from private companies.

This has led to, for example, essential ambulance services being provided by companies such as Coperforma and to Richard Branson’s Virgin Care delivering child and adolescent mental health services.

Virgin now provides more than £1billion worth of NHS contracts across the country.

In light of the well documented problems with ambulance contracts and the recent Carillion fiasco, it is both dangerous and unethical to entrust our lives and safety and our children’s mental health to profit-seeking private companies.

So in this its 70th year, today’s Labour Party is committed to an adequately and publicly funded NHS, an end to crass and damaging marketisation and restoration of the proud public service ethos that has characterised the NHS during most of my lifetime.

You don’t appreciate what you’ve had until you’ve lost it.