Earlier today, Jeremy Hunt declared that he will be enforcing new contracts on NHS junior doctors, after the BMA rejected the government’s latest Faustian deal. This government has already missed recruitment targets for the past four years with many graduates choosing to emigrate rather than work dangerously long hours in underfunded hospitals. A recent poll suggested that over 90% of junior doctors would consider resignation if this contract was imposed. It’s also safe to assume that staff morale, at a record low, will not improve under a Health Secretary intent on undermining the concerns of professionals on the NHS front line. These staff shortages will only get worse as Hunt does all he can to enrage the already depleted workforce but the Tories aren’t fools. They already know this.
The fact that Hunt was appointed Health Secretary with a desirable background in public relations and no prior knowledge or experience of the health sector, says a lot about Tory party intentions. In 2005, he co-authored a pamphlet which included a blueprint on how to privatise the health service and yet he still manages to say that the Tories are ‘the party of the NHS’ with a straight, albeit smarmy face. At times he even manages to make former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley look reasonable, until you discover that Lansley is now employed by several drugs companies/lobbyists in the private sector who charge extortionate prices for cancer drugs to the NHS – a career route Hunt is destined to travel once he paves the way for the free market bulldozers.
Hunt has consistently refused to sit down with junior doctors in private or otherwise and has even sent his aides to answer questions on TV and in parliament rather than be confronted with facts. This has worked before. Cameron refused to enter a TV debate prior to the election and Iain Duncan Smith regularly escapes scrutiny by sending in junior ministers in his stead when confronted with urgent questions in the chamber. There is of course, a brief blowback that they are subjected to; a familiar game where the media feigns outrage to give the illusion of democracy whilst the general population gets more apathetic by the audacity of it all. Either way, it’s win win for the government.
At one time, dismantling the NHS would have been considered political suicide but Thatcher’s unrealised dream is now coming to fruition. Since their re-election, the Tories have become emboldened, dropping their act about ring fencing the NHS, thanks in no small part to New Labour’s record of doing the same (see Simon Stevens). This is privatisation through the front door. Contracts worth £5.5bn have already been handed out to private companies since 2013 and a second term unimpeded by the coalition will only see these deals increase at a disorientating rate. Through forcing junior doctors into an untenable position, the government is saving itself the legal hassles of redundancies before the influx of private sector staff.
Despite Hunt’s transparent attempts to smear them, support for the strikers has remained steady throughout the two recent walk outs. Still, it wouldn’t be too presumptuous to imagine media hacks on tenterhooks, waiting for the opportunity to openly denigrate lifesaving doctors as greedy, overpaid and inhumane. Disinformation is already rife but Hunt has so far failed to spin this in his favour…for now.
The contract will be imposed in August, the month in which newly graduated staff start working on the wards. The mayhem of Black Wednesday will seem tame compared to what could potentially play out. It will be difficult to keep up public support if the media unload a barrage of exclusives on ‘vulnerable patients left to die by cash crazed medics’. There’s already an underhand campaign to portray this dispute as about pay instead of unsafe working hours which will only become more insidious as the dispute drags on.
Nye Beven, the architect of the National Health Service famously said that ‘there will be an NHS as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it’. There are very few people left alive who can remember what it was like before the NHS. Most of the population have been fortunate enough to receive treatment for free without their credit rating affecting chances of mortality. For all its shortcomings, without the NHS under public ownership, the decades of improved quality of life would be undone within a generation.
The Tories have got privatising public services down to a fine art. Transport, utilities and the majority of Britain’s former industries have all gone the way of the free market. Social housing looks set to go the way of the Dodo with the fallout predictably laid at asylum seekers red doors, while academy schools are still hailed as the benchmark of education even when they’re in extreme measures. The constant barrage of assaults on the public sector and the welfare state can get very depressing which is presumably why adult colouring books outsell Noam Chomsky on Amazons best sellers list. Escapism is understandable and a necessary coping mechanism when the country is run by Bullingdon Boys but the NHS must not be taken for granted or it will be too late. The corporate sharks are already circling and they can smell us haemorrhaging profits.