‘Capitalising on crisis’: right-wing’s bid to undermine public faith in NHS

The right-wing media’s multi-facetted attacks on the NHS, which range from pinning the crisis on ‘woke non-jobs’ to sickening trashing of GPs,  would be enough to fill a library. .

Right-Wing Watch

‘Unfit for purpose’, ‘unfixable, ‘in need of radical reform,’ are popular descriptions of the NHS, made by the right-wing media and its political allies.

It could be argued that the derogatory headlines are part of a neo-liberal agenda to obscure Tory governments’ failings that have run the NHS into the ground, and, more sinisterly still, part of an aim to dismantle the NHS bit by bit, chip away at the public’s confidence in it, so that the private sector can muscle in and profit.

Since 2010, when Tory-led governments began slashing public budgets, the NHS has witnessed the longest financial squeeze in its history. In 2022 alone it endured a real-terms cut of between £4bn and £9.4bn. NHS staff have experienced constant real-terms wage cuts. Nurses’ pay, for example, has been squeezed by 8 percent on average, with the RCN saying the salaries of some nursing roles have fallen in real-terms by as much as 20 percent since 2010

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak refuses to negotiate with striking nurses, even though giving them the pay they deserve is practically the only solution to combat severely dwindling numbers entering the profession.

So much for Sunak the Sensible.

Running alongside austerity has been the gradual privatisation of the health service. Just look at what happened in March 2012, when the Tories introduced the Health and Social Care Act. The Act ensured that non-NHS providers can establish and sustain a foothold in NHS provision. It subsequently stoked the market and forced open many more NHS contracts for private firms and charities to bid for.

Recent governments have denied suggestions they have been privatising the NHS or ever will do – after-all, admitting to such ruthlessness would be election suicide.

Public believe Tories’ plan to secretively sell off the NHS

Rishi Sunak might insist that he is committed to the principle of a universal National Health Service that is free at the point of use, but the public are less convinced. A new poll commissioned by the Byline Supplement suggests that most voters don’t believe him. The poll found that 61 percent of all voters believe the Conservatives would like to introduce new charges for certain NHS services.  51 percent believe they wish to entirely privatise the service.

‘Squeezing out’

Proof that privatisation is slowly eating its way into the health service can be found through the notion of ‘squeezing out.’

‘Squeezing out’ involves capacity within the NHS falling well below demand. As we know from the 7.2 million people currently waiting for treatment, demand is hugely outstripping capacity. Sustained underfunding and the chronic understaffing it creates, inevitably leads to a large backlog, as capacity is unable to meet demand.

Ministers love to talk about the unique challenges of the pandemic in relation to the current problems in the NHS, but in February 2020, just before the start of the pandemic, waiting lists for procedures stood at 4.43 million. During the COVID crisis the situation inevitably got worst. Consequently, private medical groups experienced a surge in patients opting to pay for care through fear of being left on indefinite waiting lists.  In 2020, for the first time ever, more hip and knee replacements were carried out privately than within the NHS.

What we have seen in recent years is the gradual ‘squeezing out’ of wealthier patients from the NHS and into the private sector provision.

While of course worsening backlogs during the pandemic were essentially out of government control, the underfunding and staff shortages which have contributed to staggering backlogs pre and post pandemic, are a result of political choices.

Writing in the Byline TimesVote Leave overspending whistleblower Shahmir Sanni described Boris Johnson’s government as being “ideologically against the very fundamental idea of public healthcare.” “The NHS doesn’t need reform, it just needs to be sold-off,” is a phrase Sanni says he regularly heard at private dinners.

The idea that Conservative governments may have been deliberately causing the NHS to fail so it can be sold off, becomes more plausible when we look at Tory media’s response to the current crisis. At best, the right-wing media and its allied MPs and think-tanks are desperately trying to deflect the blame from the government. At worst, they are almost rubbing their hands in glee, attempting to use the current crisis to undermine public faith in our health service.

Health chiefs clash over warning that delays are killing 500 a week’, splashed The Times on Jan 3, in a dig at NHS bosses.  The same week, the Telegraph published a sensationalist non-story about a hospital in Milton Keynes telling staff to pay back a Christmas bonus that they were given in error. Sadly, the story achieved what it most likely intended to do, pin the chaos on the NHS rather than the government. “Another mess-up by useless NHS management,” wrote one irritated Telegraph reader.

Recognising ministers’ desperation to ‘look for other culprits,’ Matthew Taylor, chief exec of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS services, said a decade of austerity, workforce and capital funding have led to issues in the NHS.

“If you can’t recognise that the fundamental reasons (why) we face this yawning capacity gap are to do with, particularly, the decade of austerity, but (also) other failings to address capacity issues like workforce and capital, then you have to look for other culprits and you end up manager bashing and talking about wokery, because it becomes a way to explain away the reality that the patients and the public see,” Taylor told the Health Service Journal (HSJ).

One Tory MP went a step further than whining about wokery and mismanagement. Steve Brine attempted to blame delays in care on the patients themselves, and on the UK’s “ill health as a nation.” Brine, chair of the Health Select Committee, argued the £150bn/year NHS has ‘never had more cash’ and that it did not need extra funding.

Naturally, the MP’s comments were dramatised by the Daily Mail, which splashed: ‘NHS has never had more cash than it does now and ailing £150billion-a-year service’s problems are down to UK’s ‘ill health as a nation’, senior Tory MP says.’

The right-wing media’s multi-facetted attacks on the NHS, which range from pinning the crisis on ‘woke non-jobs’ to sickening trashing of GPs,  would be enough to fill a library.
Dragging the NHS back to a pre-war system

As our grossly underfunded health service limps through the winter, the hoary Tory argument that the tax-funded system should be replaced with so-called ‘social insurance’ has been shouted about with renewed vigour and righteousness of late.

Tory heavyweight David Davies has been a recent mouthpiece in attempts to drag the NHS back to a pre-war system. Writing for the predictable platform of the Telegraph in October 2022, the one-time Brexit secretary claimed the health service is not fit for the 21st century and that “only radical reform will fix it.”

But rather than pushing to properly fund the nursing workforce to help alleviate the unprecedented pressures that the NHS is battling – something that the RCN has been calling the government to do for months –  Davis claims an ‘insurance-based system is the only way to save the NHS.’

“We owe it to our constituents to deliver the best possible health outcomes at the most affordable price, even if that means challenging some of the shibboleths that have been around longer than most of the patients,” he writes, while insisting “inept management” poses “at least as much of a problem as the abundance of managers.”

Right-wing think-tanks

As outspoken ex-ministers’ brandish their foghorns, right-wing think-tanks are working behind the scenes in the attempt to weaken public confidence in the NHS.

When talking about right-wing think-tanks, Liz Truss’s name never seems to be far away. The UK’s shortest-serving prime minister ever, is one of an eight-strong Parliamentary Board of the ‘1828 Committee,’ whose mission is to ‘make the positive case for free markets, free speech and free people.’ The committee’s ‘Neoliberal Manifesto: A freer and more prosperous Britain,’ published jointly with the Adam Smith Institute in 2019 – which incidentally had a direct influence on Liz Truss’s thinking – condemns the NHS record as “deplorable.”

“We believe that the UK should emulate the social health insurance systems as exist in countries such as Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Israel, among others. Under these systems, individuals pay regular contributions — as they currently do for the NHS through taxation — to their chosen insurer. They are then free to seek treatment from a medical provider of their choice and their insurance company subsequently reimburses the provider for the expenses incurred,” it states.

It’s interesting that the US is not on their list. Maybe that’s because it is widely seen as one of the most expensive, least effective systems among wealthy nations.

For such thinkers, comments that the NHS is ‘out of date’ and ‘not fit for the 21st century’, offers legitimacy to the idea that the health service MUST be reformed, such as by the introduction of a German-style social health insurance system. The German system, which is probably the oldest state health care system in the world,  depends on universal compulsory social insurance with the right to opt out into a private scheme at a certain income level. It is in effect a ‘hypothecated’ tax whereby taxes are earmarked for specific expenditure (a bit like the BBC’s television licence). Our Treasury hates such taxes because they lose control of how the money is spent.

What the likes of Davis fail to acknowledge when making points like the “NHS is plagued by ineffective bureaucracy…,” is that replacing the tax-paying system with a social insurance one would require a much larger and more complex bureaucracy. German doctors, for example, spend more than three hours PER DAY on administrative tasks and say they are being “suffocated” by bureaucracy.   

Then there’s the Labour Party, whose own stance on private healthcare has attracted criticism. Keir Starmer recently told Sky News that there would be more use of the private sector under a Labour government. Though he quickly added that “we are not talking about privatising the NHS,” but is instead focused on using the private sector “effectively”, while stressing that healthcare free at the point of use is an “absolutely governing principle”.

This week saw shadow health secretary Wes Streeting pitch a plan to partner with the private sector to “bring down waiting lists” by using “spare capacity.” In the long-term, Streeting’s plan involves expanding the NHS workforce by training new UK staff.

Without unpicking the proposal in too much detail, problems immediately jump out. Namely because the idea that the private sector could help the NHS deal with backlogs has been described as a myth. As the business model of almost all private hospitals in Britain is centred on not having to employ surgeons or clinicians, enabling them to keep labour costs low and operating profit margins high, private providers simply don’t have the doctors to help. For anyone who has had the privilege of seeing a private clinic, the chances are the same doctor is visiting NHS wards the same day. Instead of clearing the backlog, Streeting’s plan is likely to add to the chaos. Adding to the current billions paid to private providers would only exacerbate NHS funding problems.

Cronyism and outsourcing

Efforts to enable the private sector to profit rang loud and clear when cronyism and outsourcing was fundamental to the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. In May 2021, Sir David King, a former chief scientific advisor and special representative for climate change under Boris Johnson, said the government is slipping through plans to “effectively privatise the NHS by stealth” in “the name of a pandemic.”

In the same year, a group of 67 MPs publicly opposed the US health insurance giant Centene’s takeover of GP practices in Britain. Labour MP Apsana Begum – who tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) in parliament expressing ‘alarm’  at the takeover – said it represented ‘privatisation by stealth:’

“We must fight for the NHS to return to complete public ownership, so that we have a service which is funded by the public for the public. The NHS should not be run for profit, because profit does not care for people’s wellbeing,” said Begum.

As backdoor privatisation gained momentum, so too did the right-wing media’s attacks on the NHS. Left Foot Forward reported in May 2022 that 75 percent of stories that appeared in the Daily Mail with NHS in their titles over that month, were found to be negative.

Today, the attacks seem to be coming in thicker and faster. But are we really surprised given that opposition towards the NHS is a long and contemptible Tory tradition, commenced by Churchill’s Conservatives who voted against its creation a monstrous 21 times?

It makes you think back to the pandemic when Tory ministers wore rainbow-coloured NHS badges and clapped for NHS workers on their doorsteps. After years of underfunding and now refusal to boost nurses pay in-line with inflation, it makes you realise that it really was little more than a PR spectacle.

Right-wing media watch – Heritage Foundation foghorn joins tedious ‘militant unions’ rants

Accompanying the NHS-bashing in the right-wing press this week has been a sustained and predictable assault on trade unions. And Nile Gardiner is one figure who has stood out.

Describing himself as a ‘foreign policy analyst’ and ‘former aide to Margaret Thatcher’ to his 36K Twitter followers, Gardiner is another conservative commentator who doesn’t hold back in ensuring his crazy right-wing views are put in front of the public.

Writing in the Sun on Jan 7, Gardiner demands ‘Rishi Sunak must do a Maggie and take on militant unions.’  Using the drearily well-worn assertion that unions are ‘holding the country to ransom,’ Gardiner assures Britain in 2023 is ‘starting to look like Britain in 1984. Or 1979.’

The piece attempts to liken union leaders like Mick Lynch to the “1980s-era hard-left” Arthur Scargill. 

“Callous, uncaring and with a dangerous, extreme socialist agenda, they operate with ruthlessness and sheer contempt for ordinary people,” writes Gardiner.

Yawn, haven’t we heard this all be before, on multiple occasions? Why can’t any of these right-wing pundits come up with something new to say? And don’t they realise that the more they dig away at the RMT general secretary and disparage him, the more he’s hailed   as a hero?

Gardiner, who is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the right-wing think-tank the Heritage Foundation in the US, grabs the opportunity to shout about his links to the Iron Lady. “My former boss, Margaret Thatcher, stood up to Scargill and his thuggish tactics,” he writes, while urging Sunak to ‘get tough’ and be prepared to battle against the ‘wets’ in his own party. 

What Gardiner completely ignores of course, is that Thatcher was much more pragmatic than today’s acolytes acknowledge or even realise. One of her first moves following her 1979 election victory was to settle with the unions, including in 1981 with the miners’ union. Of course, that didn’t stop her pushing through her anti-union legislation or preparing for the next miner’s strike by stockpiling coal. Maybe Sunak is closer to the real Thatcher than Gardiner’s heroine Truss – now there’s disturbing thought.

And it’s certainly been a busy week for the opinionated Gardiner. His Twitter feed has been on fire with Harry and Meghan tirades. In one tweet, he suggests that Prince Harry should be ‘eternally grateful to his family’ for his extreme wealth that means  he ‘doesn’t even need to work to earn a living.’

Linking wealth and the need not to work to happiness? – Says it all really.

But sadly, such absurd comments have been embraced by the right-wing news outlets, which have been zestfully sharing Gardiner’s hostile views.

‘Prince Harry slammed as ‘paranoid’ and ‘unhinged’ by Nile Gardiner following US interview’ splashed the Express, in reference to the commentator’s recent string of tweets.

The columnist’s Twitter feed sure makes grim reading. As well as an unhealthy obsession with criticising Harry and Meghan, he shows a dislike of Joe Biden and the Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who he refers to as ‘dumb and dumber.’ 

On top of endless praise for Liz Truss, Gardiner’s adoration of Boris Johnson is made clear, referring to the Tories who want to ‘erase Boris Johnson from history’ as ‘wets.’

In yet more madness, the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom slammed the New York Times as a ‘left wing propaganda machine’ for using a ‘former Russia Today star’ in an ‘opinion’ video on Liz Truss’ appointment as PM. The astonishing comments, which were picked up and made into a sensationalist story by the Mail, refer to a video by the fictional broadcast journalist Jonathan Pie.

Pie’s hilarious clip, in which he claims the Tories have destroyed everything in Britain, was  published in the opinion section on the NYT’s website.

Seemingly unable to recognise the fictional aspect and satire, Gardiner tells DailyMail.com:

“It’s the kind of video of Kremlin would put out about Britain,” adding: “It’s a deeply unpleasant propaganda video and bears no relation to reality.” – Really?

The article claims Tom Walker, who plays Jonathan Pie, used to work for Russia Today, despite the satirist insisting he has ‘never worked for RT’ and they used to licence his content.

Mad, mad stuff even by the Mail’s standards. It makes you wonder how much Gardiner is paid for spewing such drivel. A quick look on Zippia.com shows a Heritage Foundation Center Director gets paid $133,179 a year. Couple this with his various columns in the right-wing press, and the ‘former Thatcher aide’ is likely to be pocketing a nicely lucrative salary.

In 2020, the Heritage Foundation was ranked No 1 among worldwide think-tanks for ‘Best Use of Social Media and Networks’ in the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go-To Think Tank Index Report.

The influential conservative think-tank must think it’s hit the jackpot with its Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom’s director, as his right-wing Twitter hogwash has managed to get the Heritage Foundation a mention in virtually every Tory media outlet in the UK.

It just shows that it pays to tweet such right-wing contempt and hypocritically pontificate about the working-class.

Woke bashing of the week – ‘Woke school bans teachers from sarcasm’ – yes really!

The Daily Mail is up to its old tricks again, finding a random person or institution and blowing up their comments like it’s the end of the world. 

This time the target is an unsuspecting school in Lincolnshire. Skegness Academy has apparently banned teachers from using sarcasm.

Great idea, sir: Woke school bans teachers from using sarcasm in the classroom,’ gushes the headline of the painfully ridiculous non-story.

What’s more, thanks to the school’s ‘guide to support staff’, which, according to the report, stops the use of irony to convey contempt, the Academy has been slammed by parents for being woke. Oh, what a surprise!

‘The whole point of school is to prepare children for the world outside, not to wrap them in ­cotton woke wool,’ one parent told The Sun, which, predictably, also featured the story.

Defending their actions, a spokesperson for the school informed the tabloids of what seems like very sensible and valid reasons for what they reminded was a guide and not a policy.

The attempt to stamp out sarcasm is part of a drive to help ensure pupils with special needs, who can find it difficult to interpret sarcasm, are nurtured in an inclusive environment, the Lincolnshire school informs.

Attempting to give the story more validity, the Mail links to a case involving a professor at a top university being suspended for nine months after he was accused of sighing and being sarcastic during interviews. The story in question was from 2014. You’d think the Mail would be able to come up with a more recent example? Desperate stuff!

I don’t know about you, but as a parent of two teenage boys, their increasing use of sarcasm is more than a little irritating, and maybe Skegness Academy has a point in encouraging less use of sarcasm from teachers and pupils.

Perhaps other schools should take a leaf out of the Academy’s book and introduce similar guides?

Naturally, the Mail and the Sun wouldn’t print such opinions, they’re not nearly ‘un-woke’ enough.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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