Election 2015: the future of our NHS is at stake

The coalition has brought untold havoc to the NHS and treated the public’s most cherished institution with disdain

In the run up to the General Election, every few weeks Left Foot Forward will take a look back at the coalition’s record on a specific policy area. This week we focus on the NHS, and each day we will feature a piece that looks back at the impact of coalition policies on the health service over the past five years. The following is from Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON.

The NHS is now the top concern for voters ahead of the 2015 general election. This is very different to five years ago when air-brushed pictures of David Cameron promising to ‘cut the deficit, not the NHS’ dominated advertising hoardings. So why the contrast?

In 2010 the NHS was thriving, with waiting times at an historic low and public satisfaction at an all-time high. Since then the coalition has brought untold havoc to the system and treated the public’s most cherished institution with disdain.

Central to the current woes of the NHS is the Health and Social Care Act. Even senior Tories now accept that this ‘unintelligible gobbledygook’ is their biggest mistake in government – and they have a long list to choose from.

UNISON warned from the start about the damage this would do to our NHS and now the chickens have well and truly come home to roost. Privatisation has been allowed to run rampant, with figures suggesting that since April 2013 more than half the clinical contracts awarded have gone outside the NHS.

Handing services over to healthcare firms has always been an evidence-free punt in the dark, but recent weeks have provided conclusive proof of the folly of this approach.

The so-called ‘franchising’ of Hinchingbrooke hospital to Circle in 2012 came to an abrupt end last month as the company signalled its intention to pull out of its contract seven years early. The company cited unprecedented A&E attendances and funding cuts as factors in its decision, but these were the same pressures the rest of the health service was struggling with.

In the NHS when the going gets tough, the private companies get going. Regrettably such lessons have not shaken the government’s dogmatic attachment to privatisation.

In Staffordshire there is the £1.3bn proposal to hand over the co-ordination of essential cancer and end of life services to bidders such as Virgin and American multinational United Health. There is also the plan to sell off primary care support services, including the handling of personal data for every patient in England, to one of three companies – with the public sector not even given a chance to bid.

And the latest wheeze is mutualisation, in which hospitals can ‘spin out’ from the public sector as a cover for what ministers acknowledge is ‘technically privatisation’.

But it is not just the disruption of the free market that Cameron and co have brought to our NHS. The latest figures reveal a further deteriorating financial picture for hospital balance sheets with NHS trusts suffering an overall deficit of more than £414m.

The Health and Social Care Act meant that billions were wasted on a top-down overhaul that no one wanted and no one voted for – money that could have been spent far better elsewhere. This lies at the root of the A&E crisis that erupted into full view at the start of the year with 14 trusts declaring major incidents, operations being cancelled and waiting targets missed.

The situation has been aggravated by short-sighted government decisions elsewhere, such as the decimation of social care and forcing out the successful NHS Direct service.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that workforce morale has been driven into the ground. The much-heralded drive for ‘efficiencies’ in the NHS has been built almost entirely on the back of the workforce, who have seen the value of their wages wiped out since 2010.

There have also been repeated attempts to undermine the Agenda for Change pay system with attacks on national bargaining, attempts to curtail incremental pay progression, and now even the suggestion of cuts to unsocial hours payments. On pay the government was finally forced to the negotiating table last week, but only after a campaign of sustained industrial action by the health unions.

It is now clear to staff – and voters – that the NHS needs a shot in the arm. And so UNISON welcomes the confirmation from Andy Burnham that Labour is calling time on the market experiment in the health service – this will provide reassurance to patients and staff.

In contrast to the successful Tory campaign to ‘neutralise’ the NHS as an issue in 2010, this time around the health service seems set to play a huge part in the election. After all, the NHS is not the preserve of the Westminster elite – it belongs to all of us. And patients, staff and the public will not sit back and let it be run into the ground.

Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON

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