Are we angry enough to save the NHS?

LPC Nancy Platts with Nick McMaster, Comms Officer


Like most people I’m sure, I’ve always considered myself a lover rather than a fighter, so before we look at anger let us look at love. On the 27th July 2012 an estimated worldwide audience of over 1 billion people watched the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, and at 9.35pm they watched 600 public service staff from a little island in the north Atlantic jive their way round to forming quite possibly the three most powerful and respected initials in the world: NHS.

Would any other country in the world have spent millions on a ceremony lauding an institution that is constantly attacked by its detractors for being wasteful? How very British. How very ironic that a competition which is as much a showcase for global capitalism and sponsorship as it is for athletics is an actual drain on the public purse, whereas an institution so culturally poles apart from global capitalism, is actually good value for money.

On practically every marker the NHS comes out as the best health care system in the world. For quality, safety, timeliness and access, the NHS is number 1. The only time we fall out against our international competitors is money. Yes, Australia, Sweden, France, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and the USA are all better than us. All better than us at spending more per capita, with the States health care system costing 2.5 times more per head of population than our free at the point of delivery nonsense. But of course, if you listen to some quarters then the NHS is inefficient, moribund, failing. No it isn’t. It’s just overstretched, tired and demoralised from constantly being reorganised and opened up to unnecessary and costly competition.

Which brings me to anger.

When I first started my current job in the mid 90’s I used to get upset at the state of the NHS all the time. I got upset because the canteen used to always serve us half defrosted cake for the daily patient ward meeting: why couldn’t they get it to room temperature? Later I would get upset that the only large room we had available to run a Tai Chi group in was the smoking lounge. Breathe in, breathe out.

How times have changed. Now I get angry because I see our NHS day services tendered out to the third sector and within a year buildings are closed down, staff have their terms and conditions attacked and 10 out of 20 of them are then made redundant.

Now I get angry because despite there being no legal need to do so, our council tender out our city’s drug and alcohol services. They have taken away the contract from the local NHS and awarded it to a third sector organisation based in Surrey who are in partnership with a Surrey based NHS Trust, who - guess what - are consulting on breaking from national terms and conditions. Why? So they can reduce annual leave and sick pay entitlement. This to nurses who have already been denied a measly 1% pay rise from a government quite keen to award MPs their 11%.

Now I get angry because if we see a part of the NHS put up for tender, we know that 70% of them will be awarded to the private sector. This is no longer privatisation by the back door; this is kicking the front door off its hinges and not giving a toss if anyone gets a splinter. The public sector can sort that bit out.

But ask yourself “what NHS are we trying to save?”, because the defenders of privatisation will point out that the vast majority of our health care is still provided by the NHS and a “whiff of privatisation” as Ukip like to say, would be no bad thing. The trouble is privatisation is clever. The vast majority of time it’s the soft underbelly of the NHS that gets market tested. It’s the services that people have less emotional attachment to that slip quietly away, such as our own drug and alcohol services.

The trouble is if we let those go without a fight, because they might not directly affect us or seem somehow less deserving, then when it comes to something big, we will already be on the back foot. This fight won’t work from a standing start; we have to be up and running now. We need to see every part of the NHS as important because privatisation divides and conquers: not just the bricks and mortar of health care, but our hearts and minds.

Before 2012, the previous time the Olympics were held in London was in 1948, the year the NHS was founded. No one could have guessed that 64 years later it would turn into an institution that treated 1 million of us every 36 hours, united the nation and had become so much a part of our character, of our national pride; it lit up a stadium with those three powerful initials.

I am angry because, if we don’t take action at the ballot box, in our communities, and in the media, those initials NHS are in danger of being replaced by those even more recognisable: SOS.

Finally I note that today we understand the word ‘anger’ as meaning ‘enraged’ or ‘incensed’, and both would accurately describe my feelings about the constant attacks on the NHS. However, the original root of the word goes back to Middle English from Old Norse and means ‘grief’ or ‘sorrow’.

If we ever find ourselves with those latter feelings, then the NHS will have gone. My plea to you is to stay angry. Stay angry and defend the NHS.

This is the transcript of a speech given by Nick McMaster, Comms Officer at a Politics in the Pub event on November 12th 2014, organised by Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Kemptown, Nancy Platts. The theme of the event was "NHS Condition Critical: Are we angry enough to save the NHS?"