By taking on doctors and nurses, the government betrays its real agenda

Junior doctors' strike shows the government picked the wrong enemy this time


It was the bus stop full of people that really struck me on Saturday. Near Charing Cross station there it was a disparate London crowd, young and old, some in ‘Saturday best’, others in jeans.

As the “Bursary or Bust” march of student nurses passed, they were applauding, cheering, waving, showing their support. It reflected the reception along the whole route of the march, from St Thomas’s Hospital to Downing Street.

The bus stop cheering continued as the junior doctors out in support of the nurses went past with their colourful banner, and it struck me that this time the government has really taken on the wrong people.

That Britons love their NHS is a truism, but that’s a love that also extends to NHS staff – the people who are with us at our moments of greatest hope, greatest fear and greatest pain.

Outside Number 10 Downing Street, student nurses and midwives explained some of their work. The student midwife, speaking of comforting a woman who’d just lost a baby to stillbirth, sitting with her, supporting her. And a student nurse spoke of how when patients call ‘nurse, nurse’, they’re not thinking of her as a trainee or a student, but the person there at their bedside who can help them.

Another student nurse spoke of caring for a 90-year-old in the deep reaches of the night, of being deeply tired, of being a younger person helping an elder with their fears, their pain, with the embarrassment of incontinence.

These were moving accounts, a powerful counter to the government’s plans to take away the bursaries now available (means-tested) to student nurses and to make them pay student loans of £9,000 a year, as other students already pay.

The risks of that are clear. London alone is already short of 10,000 nurses. Trusts across the country are scrambling to recruit nurses from across the EU and beyond.

And yet from 2017 nurses and midwives will face graduating with more than £50,000 of debt – into starting salaries of around £20,000 – enough to have to pay back their loans from the start of their careers, but facing 30 years of payments that will never clear the loan.

Even with the strong sense of vocation that drives many nurses and midwives into the profession, many potential recruits will surely think again.

But beyond that, there’s the deep unreasonableness of making public sector workers pay to be employed. For student nurses and midwives complete a large amount of practical training during their courses – that is, they work for the NHS.

This is a new low in the government’s austerity – putting a new concrete form to the way in which it has made the poor, the disadvantaged and public sector workers pay for the greed and fraud of the bankers.

That’s matched by the government’s treatment of junior doctors, striking today after Jeremy Hunt not only refused to listen to their grave concerns about their proposed new contracts’ impacts not only on pay but also on patient safety. The health secretary was proclaiming almost settlement of the dispute as the doctors – 98 per cent of whom voted for strike action – said very clearly he hadn’t understood what they were saying.

And what we’ve seen in the past couple of days is a concerted – indeed it almost looks coordinated – attack on the junior doctors. The Sun led the way, (no I won’t link to the article, but you can get a sense of it from the immediate, witty, powerfully mocking response on Twitter with the hashtags #smearthedocs and #moetmedics).

Nurses and midwives it appears are still too sensitive for the government and its allies to go for, but they’re happy to take a swing at doctors.

But all of this does raise the question of why should it be launching such a concerted attack on the essential staff of the NHS. With shortages of doctors and nurses acute – I heard about the desperate shortage of GPs first-hand over Christmas from a soon-to-retire, exhausted, dedicated family doctor, who can’t take any more, even though she can’t find a replacement to take over from her – why take steps only likely to amplify the shortage?

Why treat these essential staff with such damaging disrespect? What I heard on Saturday’s march and have heard elsewhere is that consistent slandering of the NHS and its staff, is having almost as much of an impact on morale, and retention, as the concrete measures attacking our medical staff.

There can only be one conclusion – that the government wants to break down the resistance to the privatisation of the NHS. It wants to destroy the public trust and faith in the NHS, remove the passionate support for its workers that I saw on London’s streets on Saturday.

It wants to shift us to the US model of healthcare – of for-profit providers and loss of the critical principle of care free at the point of use for all. That’s despite the fact that that model is demonstrably disastrous, delivering a system that costs about twice the percentage of GDP as the NHS, for far worse results.

But resistance to the whole project of privatisation, the failed model that is built on cutting the pay and conditions of workers, slashing the quality of services, and delivering public money into private hands (usually in tax havens), is growing.

There’s broad support for the bringing of railways back into public hands, there’s increasing understanding of the massive failure of the model of privatised nursing homes set up as cash cows for investment firms,  and general resistance to the privatisation of the NHS.

The nurses marching on Saturday, the doctors striking today, have no experience of taking action – they’re not the ‘militants’ of government propaganda. They’re ordinary women and men standing up for their patients, for their profession.

They deserve our support, and I’m glad they’re getting it.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party. Follow her on Twitter

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