In recent weeks we have among others seen Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and members of the Royal family (all of whom it’s safe to guess have never used the NHS) joining in the public applause for key workers. Additionally, there have been a number of structural changes and commitments to increased funding that make it feel as if the strengths of a truly public National Health Service are now being acknowledged, together with an implied criticism of many of the reforms of the last near decade.

Taking over CCGs

On March 23rd it was announced that NHS England was taking on extensive special powers normally held by clinical commissioning groups to support efforts in the face of coronavirus. Dr. Tony O’Sullivan (co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public) commented on the NHS England website: “at this time of national tragedy, we should remember the function of a national health service and how politicians and the seismic restructuring policies in the Long Term Plan have weakened the NHS. I hope that this ends the fragmentation into 42 separate commissioning units and integrated care systems. How wrong that strategy has been. As we welcome some steps towards the re-integration of the NHS in our hour of need, let us not forget the follies that weakened it and that have put NHS staff and the public at risk. We need the NHS to go forward as a single coordinated public service, there for everyone in time of ‘war’ and nurtured once again in post-COVID-19 peacetime.”

Taking over the private sector?

These special powers will be in place until at least the end of 2020, and one of the principal reasons for them was to gain access to independent sector beds. Taking over the independent sector in times of national need is to be applauded. Spain for example has just requisitioned its large private sector. In stark contrast, however, the UK government is paying private hospitals £300 per bed per day. Business analysts have observed that this is a huge boost to independent hospitals. A private hospital working on an NHS tariff at 100% capacity is far better than conducting private medical insurance work at 50% capacity.

Abolishing debt?

The government announced that from April 1st it would “write-off” £13bn of historic debt across the NHS. In recent years financially struggling trusts have been routinely forced to seek emergency bailout loans from the Department of Health and Social Care. Last year, trusts’ total debts reached £14bn, of which £10bn was related to emergency loans. While Matt Hancock declared this a “landmark step” made by himself to help the NHS COVID-19 response, the plans had in fact already been discussed at a January meeting called by NHS England and NHS Improvement, and had been under consideration for at least 20 months. 

As tax expert Richard Murphy explains, the government has not written off hospital debt. “All it did was make a book-keeping adjustment. What it actually did was allow NHS trusts to record the sums they had spent for the populations they served as having been funded by central government when previously the government were claiming they had overspent.”

John Lister writing for the KONP website also noted that “it’s like a gang of burglars seeking gratitude after handing back some of the jewels they have stolen. £13.4bn averages to a refund of just £1.3bn per year for the last ten years – far less than the real terms cuts that have been imposed by the virtual freeze on funding while the population and its health needs have grown.” It would be much more valuable to the NHS if the government were to write off the huge outstanding payments for new buildings paid for through the Private Finance Initiative, but strangely, Rishi Sunak does not seem to be stepping forward with this proposal.

Xenophobia is alive and well

Before the pandemic, the UK had only 4100 critical care beds, 6.6/100,000 population compared with Germany’s 29.2. An urgent need to find more ventilators was identified at the start of the outbreak, yet Downing Street chose not to participate in an EU scheme to source such vital equipment, leading to the charge of putting “brexit over breathing”. The government’s attempts to justify this through claims of having accidentally missed a deadline due to communication errors were quickly exposed as groundless by EU officials.

Despite the need for both trust and a unified response to the crisis by members of the public, it is notable that the hostile environment in the NHS has not been lifted. As one member of KONP writing in the British Medical Journal observed, “it is simply not good enough for the UK to add the novel coronavirus to its list of exemptions from charges, which few people will know. To tackle this epidemic and protect everyone’s health, all barriers to accessing NHS treatment – including charges and reporting of debt to the Home Office – should be suspended immediately.”

References to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’ and promising a reckoning with China after the pandemic are diversions of attention from the failings of our government ministers. Zoonoses (infectious diseases that spread from animals to humans) are linked to climate change and intensive farming methods among other things, and are destined to be a recurrent event. Michael Gove would do well to reflect that not long ago Bovine Spongioform Encephalopathy resulted in the slaughter of 4.4 million cows in the UK and was responsible for variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. The World Health Organisation has warned against use of the term ‘Chinese virus’ saying that it could lead to racial profiling against Asians when “there is no blame in this”. In the UK we have already seen reports of Asian people being physically attacked in the street. 

What next?

Writing in the nineteenth century in his book The Housing Question, Frederick Engels made a highly relevant comment on the self-interest that motivates those who are in control of society through virtue of their wealth and position. “Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers.” 

Having said that, the competence of the ruling elite in preventing and controlling epidemics is always in doubt, since their desire for profit is in opposition to any inclination to spend money on public services until it is too late. Thus an opportunity to avert a crisis is lost, and a pandemic that could have been limited if planning advice had been implemented and intervention had been timely must instead run its miserable course. We have known for the past 13 years, for example, that a pandemic at least as lethal as coronavirus represented an ever present major threat.

At the same time we can be sure that history will be busily rewritten in order to exculpate ministers and make sure any temporary steps towards ‘nationalisation’ of services are quickly reversed. There may even be calls to continue the restrictions on civil liberty for much longer than the medical situation necessitates. 

Charles Moore (former editor of the Daily Telegraph, where he was Boris Johnson’s exasperated boss) is jockeying for position in this vanguard, explaining to readers that it is in fact deficiencies in the public sector that has brought the country to lockdown. In a sense Moore is correct, but for the wrong reasons. It is the underfunding and weakening of the NHS at the hands of the Tories that has made it much less able to deal with the current crisis, making lockdown even more crucial in order to limit demand. We can also expect to hear from other ideologues about how our small and parasitic private sector came to the rescue of the NHS in its time of need.

However much the Tories are now clapping for our NHS, we must remember that they are fundamentally opposed to public services, and will soon forget their panic and revert to form. A former Tory insider, now disillusioned with the world view that anything funded by the state is wrong (except of course infrastructure that furthers the interests of the rich), has written a tell-all piece stating as much.

Our job as health campaigners is to now make sure the right lessons are learned during the coming weeks and months. We need to keep the Tories on the hook, and harness the public anger which will no doubt grow over time. We must rally the vast majority of society around our vision of a health and social care service that exemplifies a more just, equal and caring society. 

Dr John Puntis is a consultant paediatric gastroenterologist, the co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public, and a member of Doctors In Unite.