The United Kingdom was one of the countries worst hit by the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Boris Johnson government stumbled from crisis to crisis, its record of parties exposing the deep insensitivity that characterized its response to the pandemic, hospitalizations soared and staff faced heavy pressure. In the week ending January 2, over 39,000 National Health Service (NHS) staff reported absent as COVID-19 ripped through the country. While the intensity of the pandemic has decreased, the country recorded over 62,000 new cases on Sunday, January 30 with over 2.8 million active cases.
Despite the deadly impact of the pandemic, the Tory government has continued with pushing the controversial Health and Care Bill 2021-2022 in parliament. The bill, which has been dubbed by critics as the “NHS Corporate Takeover Bill,” has already passed its initial stages in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is currently going through deliberations at the committee stage in the House of Lords, a process which began on January 11.
Critics of the bill have pointed out that the bid to reorganize the NHS is an attempt by the Tory government to further privatize its key services and legitimize the participation of private stakeholders in its decision-making bodies. According to reports, the bill will break up the NHS into 42 separate integrated care systems (ICS), each of which will have “its own tight budget which will force local cuts.”
Several sections including the Labour Party, Communist Party of Britain (CPB), trade unions like Unite the Union, and groups such as Just Treatment, Nurses United, Keep Our NHS Public, We Own It and People’s NHS, among others, have been vehemently opposing the bill. They have demanded that the NHS be retained fully under the government as a public-funded institution that provides free and universal health care services. The NHS has been slowly and steadily eroded over the last three decades to favor the market paradigm through purposeful divestment and reforms intended for privatization by various conservative governments, including reforms like the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
Labour Party MP Richard Burgon, wrote in a post on Twitter, “the NHS is not failing. The NHS is being deliberately failed by Tory governments who have overseen a decade of cuts, underinvestment, privatization and outsourcing. They want you to think it’s failing – so that they can then hand it over to their rich donors to profit from.”
Just Treatment reiterated these concerns regarding the Health and Care Bill. The group said that if implemented “the reforms would give private companies, such as Virgin and Serco, control over the NHS, who will always cut corners on healthcare services in order to increase their own profits. Paying for these reforms will mean more cuts that would lead to closure of many more GP clinics, hospitals and Accident & Emergency services ‘for not being financially viable’.”
Just Treatment also cautioned that reorganization of the NHS as proposed in the bill will jeopardize the national, standard, universal and uniform characteristics of the NHS services and may set different standards of care across the country depending on one’s location, living standards and ability to pay, among other factors. The group warned that participation of private players in the NHS’ decision-making bodies will encourage them to invest more in offering private healthcare to wealthy patients. They will also be able to decide what to pay their staff. Therefore, cost cutting could further hurt the overworked nurses and doctors.
Dr. Allyson Pollock, clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University, said that “the Health and Care Bill 2021 will reduce national and local accountability of the NHS, completes the detachment of funding, planning and provision of health services from local residents and local areas, and moves to a system based on membership or enrollment of the population into Integrated Care Boards (ICBs).”
“The Bill will move health services in England closer to the US model of mixed funding and mainly private provision, with many of the same features and risks for increasing costs and widening inequalities in access to and outcomes of health care,” she added.
The UK has managed to tide over wave after wave of COVID-19 due to the tireless work by NHS staff who have braved precarious work conditions, limited safety measures, and paltry remuneration. This begs the question: What will happen if the NHS falls?