The NHS emergency

It’s time Labour showed leadership and solidarity We have the chance to save our NHS and inflict a serious defeat on the Tories

THE NHS is in crisis. Everyone knows that. The Coalition and Tory claims to have ring-fenced health spending was and is a cruel deception.

In fact funding has been frozen in real terms while patient numbers have grown, costs have risen and permanent staff are hard to recruit and retain, given that pay levels have steadily fallen. Meanwhile spending has soared on agency staff to plug the gaps. In addition the Tories have cut bursaries (grants) for student nurses, forcing them to work for free on their placements and take out loans, which will choke off still more the supply of qualified staff.

London Health Emergency demonstrates that 138 out of 150 NHS trusts are in the red, to the tune of £2.2 billion. Just nine trusts were in surplus, and the regulator has demanded a “headcount reduction” (i.e. job losses) to help balance the books. Already critically short of staff, the hospitals are missing many of their treatment targets.

To make matters worse, the Tories promised at the election and are now seeking to impose full weekend working, without a commensurate increase in staff. This can only mean longer hours, more punishing shifts for an already tired and overstretched workforce.

Last year the junior doctors, expected to bear the brunt of the Tory proposal, revolted and said no. Jeremy Hunt’s response, after perfunctory negotiations with the BMA, was to simply impose new contracts. That will be dangerous for the health of doctors and nursing staff and dangerous for their patients. But the junior doctors are not taking it lying down.

After their well supported one-day strikes in January and February, they will now escalate action to 48 hours strikes starting on 9 March, 6 April and 26 April.

Every trade unionist and pro-NHS campaigner should support them on the picket lines, on their demonstrations, and take various sorts of support action wherever possible. Unison and the other health unions should immediately raise their own issues and ballot their health service members for action alongside the doctors.

The answer to personnel shortages and admittedly low levels of weekend cover is quite simply to employ more staff, to train more doctors ,nurses and ancillary workers . We need more government money directly invested into the NHS, not spent on PFI schemes or on outsourcing to private healthcare businesses.

Such action itself can be a launchpad for a massive campaign to save the NHS from rundown and stop and reverse its privatisation: the campaign the TUC and the health service unions should have launched against Andrew Lansley’s Bill.

The Labour Party, with its 400,000 members, needs to be in the very thick of this struggle. Local branch members have of course been on the picket lines. John McDonnell joined the picket line outside St Thomas’ Hospital opposite parliament. Yet, shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander refused to support the strike: “I am not going to appear on any picket line and I expect the rest of the shadow cabinet to do the same.”

Jeremy Corbyn – who has repeatedly declared his support for the doctors’ case against Hunt’s imposed contract, blaming him for the strike – should nevertheless go further and make it clear that strike action is the only answer, and that he supports it. Jeremy should be on the picket line himself on 8 April and defy Heidi Alexander’s arrogant ban on shadow cabinet members doing so. If she resigns in a huff, so be it. We can’t sacrifice Labour’s commitment to opposing austerity and publically supporting workers’ struggles to keep individual MPs happy.

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Editorial March 2016