Private providers must serve the public interest

In the middle of March 2020, it was clear that the NHS would not have the capacity to deal with the increased demands of the Covid-19 epidemic. This lack of spare capacity is clear evidence of continuing government failure to invest in the NHS to provide the required flexibility to meet unplanned needs.  As a necessary but panic measure to deal with the threat of COVID 19, Johnson’s Government struck a deal with the private hospital sector to rent beds from them at a cost of £2,400,000 per day.

By the end of June, after approximately one hundred days this will already have cost the NHS a quarter of a billion pounds. It is clear that the Government can find funds when they are needed and that their default position is to throw money at the private sector despite the shocking record of commercial organisations in providing health and social care.

This is a disgrace which has thrown a lifeline to the private health providers who would have not been able to operate normally during the pandemic and would have lost huge quantities of money but for this.

NHS hospitals have largely coped with the first wave of the COVID 19 pandemic by ceasing all other activity and by the public co-operating with a country-wide lockdown. The extra capacity has been mostly unused. Effectively the private hospitals have received tens of millions of pounds of public money, and rising, to do nothing.

As the NHS begins to deal with the huge backlog of non COVID care these private hospitals must be obliged to make their facilities available to help with the catch up in care and they must do so taking into account the windfall they have obtained to date.

There must be no profiteering from Covid-19.

We demand:

  • Private hospitals must provide value for the money already paid to them and make their facilities available to help clear the backlog of NHS care for no extra charge.
  • There must be full scrutiny and open book accounting to ensure that taxpayers can see that they are getting value for money.
  • Commercial organisations must not be permitted to cherry pick their way to bigger profits at a time of great national emergency.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-nhs-waiting-times-surgery-privatisation-a9550831.html?amp

Doctors in Unite statement 28/06/20

Tens of Thousands of Avoidable Deaths Due to The Government’s Callous Indifference to the effects of Covid 19

June 1 2020 heralded the official start of the easing of the lockdown that has been in place since 23rd March to try to contain the spread of Covid 19.

The current reality is that due to the Westminster Government’s repeatedly vague and confusing messaging, compounded by their unwavering support of the Prime Minister’s rule breaking Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings, people are already relaxing social distancing.

We have now known about the threat from Covid 19 since January this year, and through the lens of the media watched it heading our way via Iran, Italy and other countries. The UK had more time than most to prepare, however this opportunity was squandered by the Westminster Government.

Instead of learning from the experience of other countries and making sure that key workers had sufficient personal protective equipment and that time honoured locally coordinated test, trace, isolate and support programmes were in place to contain the spread of the virus, Boris Johnson glibly announced that the UK’s strategy would be one of developing herd immunity (a form of indirect protection from disease that occurs when a large percentage of the population has become immune) and that we should prepare ourselves for our loved ones to die.

Soon after, Imperial College published modelling which showed the NHS would be overwhelmed by Covid cases if more stringent measures were not put in place.

The Government publicly abandoned their herd immunity strategy and the UK went into lockdown. Over two months later, following a shockingly high peak in early April, the daily death rate and reporting of new cases has declined significantly, but not enough to suppress the virus to a level that makes it safe to start to open up schools and businesses.

The much heralded national contact tracing scheme is beset with problems and unlikely to be up and running (let alone working well) before the end of June at the earliest. Meanwhile, local projects are being held back, starved of resources and undermined.

We must ask ourselves why our Government have careered from one position to another during the Covid 19 crisis, seemingly out of control and always on the back foot. They, like anyone else, can be forgiven for the odd mistake, but this has had the appearance of a complete shambles.  They have the more conservative of the best scientific minds at their disposal and experience from other countries which were beset by the virus before the UK to draw on.

So why has their response been so seemingly incompetent and why are they now insisting that it is safe to ease lockdown when the evidence suggests that this will trigger another viral surge? Could this be construed as akin to corporate manslaughter?

We believe that the Westminster Government has been forced by events to address the health of the public in this crisis but has done so through gritted teeth because it is at odds with their ideological programme of dismantling the welfare state. For them the crisis is also an opportunity to expose more public services to privatisation.  This is why they have so vigorously prevented NHS laboratories and local public health teams from expanding their services appropriately to meet the demands of the pandemic, instead choosing to  contract with Tory-contributing, multinational, outsourcing agencies like SERCO despite the fact that these companies’ incompetence and corruption in providing health care are well known.

Easing lockdown may “stimulate” the economy, but in the process thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives, especially those of the elderly, will be sacrificed as the virus surges again.

This is disgraceful and callous. Lives are far more important than profit.

We have said before that lockdown should not be eased until

  • Proper locally coordinated test, track, isolate and support systems are in place and shown to be working
  • There is financial support so workers do not lose income if they need to isolate
  •  There is adequate ongoing supply of appropriate PPE for all key workers

None of these things are yet adequately in place.

History shows that pandemics have lethal subsequent waves.

We believe that to end lockdown in the current circumstances will lead to huge numbers of avoidable deaths as the virus surges again. When these deaths occur the question must inevitably arise – ‘was this corporate manslaughter?’

There is no rationale to the behaviour of the Westminster Government other than to put profit before people – we demand a change in strategy to put the health of the people first.

Doctors in Unite 7 June 2020.

References:

  1. https://www.ft.com/content/38a81588-6508-11ea-b3f3-fe4680ea68b5
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/12/uk-moves-to-delay-phase-of-coronavirus-plan
  3. Britain Drops Its Go-It-Alone Approach to Coronavirus – Own Matthews, Foreign Policy 17/03/20
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/28/coronavirus-infection-rate-too-high-second-wave
  5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52473523
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/28/ppe-testing-contact-tracing-shambles-outsourcing-coronavirus
  7. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52284281
  8. https://doctorsinunite.com/2020/05/25/isolate-trace-and-support-is-the-only-safe-way-out-of-lockdown/
  9. https://doctorsinunite.com/2020/05/18/testing-times-require-radical-solutions/
  10. https://www.history.com/news/spanish-flu-second-wave-resurgence
  11. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/31/did-a-coronavirus-cause-the-pandemic-that-killed-queen-victorias-heir

NHS surcharges have been dropped for overseas health workers. We must now end all unfair healthcare costs

Doctors in Unite is delighted that the government have seen sense and ended the NHS surcharge for overseas health workers. We all owe health workers from overseas a huge debt. They often carry out the work which attracts the lowest pay, and without them the NHS would collapse. They don’t just contribute in the hours they work; they also pay taxes like any other citizen.

The government must now go further and drop the NHS surcharge for all overseas migrants and end charging for NHS care. Anything less disregards the founding principles of the NHS as a comprehensive health care service, publicly funded and publicly provided for all.

Nye Bevan never intended the overseas visitor to pay for the NHS. He said, “how do we distinguish a visitor from anybody else? Are British citizens to carry means of identification everywhere to prove that they are not visitors? For if the sheep are to be separated from the goats both must be classified. What began as an attempt to keep the health service for ourselves would end by being a nuisance to everybody.”

We must end all charging in the NHS now.

Government ineptitude has undoubtedly led to many unnecessary deaths – they must be held to account

Richard Horton, respected editor of the medical journal ‘the Lancet’, aptly summed up the current pandemic in the following words: “Coronavirus is the greatest global science policy failure in a generation. Austerity blunted the ambition and commitment of government to protect its people. The objective was to diminish the size and role of the state. The result was to leave the country fatally weakened”. China implemented a lockdown in Hubei province on 23rd January in response to a new and severe respiratory infection. One week later the World Health Organisation declared a global emergency in recognition of what had become a worldwide pandemic. It then took nearly two months for the UK government to grasp the seriousness of the problem and to implement social distancing and isolation. This delay has led to many unnecessary deaths.

Despite there being core public health principles of “test, isolate and contact trace” in response to an epidemic, this process has not been implemented in the UK. There was talk of ‘herd immunity’ as an alternative strategy, but scientists then pointed out this could mean hundreds of thousands of deaths before the infection was under control. A panicked government decided to abandon its irrational belief in ‘British exceptionalism’ and on 23rd March instituted a lock down of sorts, with people encouraged to stay at home, and most businesses closed down. News footage still showed London underground packed with people and construction workers as key workers were expected to turn up for work as usual.

Unrecognised dangers included the risk to the elderly living in care homes together with their carers, the risk to bus drivers and other key workers with public-facing roles in the community.  The fact that many workers on zero hours contracts and those outsourced from the NHS and not entitled to sick pay would be forced to continue to go to work even if ill. Sick and elderly patients were discharged to care homes only to spread infection without having been tested for the virus, and outrageously, ‘do not attempt cardio-pulmonary resuscitation’ orders proliferated for pensioners and those with learning difficulties or disabilities often without discussion. The official death toll has gone up to above 20,000 – but these are confirmed deaths in hospital and there may be at least as many again in the community without a definitive diagnosis.

In the meantime, countries like Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand and Germany, which rapidly instituted widespread testing and contact tracing were demonstrating a much lower number of cases and deaths. While the UK government kept promising more testing, numbers grew painfully slowly. Centres specially created to test key staff were set up by the accountancy firm Deloitte, given the contract without it going out to tender under obscure legislation passed in 2015. As usual, reports of problems with lost samples and mis-communication of results followed, just as the privatisation of NHS logistics caused problems with distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE). Despite repeated reassurance from government ministers that stocks of PPE were available, this turned out not to be the case as week after week front line staff complained of being sent to war without the necessary armour. Around 132 NHS and care staff have now died from the disease and will be remembered along with many others on International Workers’ Memorial Day.

Worse still for government credibility were details of the unpublished Cygnus report from a 2016 pandemic planning exercise, and more from the 2019 National Security Risk Assessment, both showing that the government knew full well of the major risk posed by the likelihood of a new pandemic, and the need to stockpile PPE and equipment such as ventilators for intensive care, yet did nothing. As one commentator remarked: “We have been paying for a third-party fire and theft policy for a pandemic, not a comprehensive one. We have been caught out”.

Things which have assisted the pandemic response include the fact that we still have a ‘national’ health service and brilliant staff with a public service ethos. Things that have hindered the response include government reforms over recent years promoting marketisation, fragmentation, privatisation and outsourcing. NHS England has rightly taken over commissioning functions from Clinical Commissioning Groups, and government has wiped away the £14 billion hospital overspend to let Trusts focus attention on doing what was necessary to fight the infection. The small private sector capacity was harnessed to assist the NHS. However, the huge PFI debt millstones remain in place, and private hospitals are only too happy to be subsidised to the tune of £2.3 million/day through block contracts- one of the businesses that will not now go under in the coming recession.

The hostile environment aimed at those migrants with uncertain immigration status not only meant the end to universal health care under the NHS, but now fear of being reported to the home office or financially charged will undermines planned contact tracing. This charging needs to be abolished now, as does the yearly surcharge of £625 for members of NHS staff coming from abroad, and each of their family members.

Government policies left the NHS in a weak starting position, with over 100,000 staff vacancies, cuts in bed numbers of 17,000 since 2010, and near the bottom of the European league table in relation to intensive care beds (half as many as Italy and around one fifth of those in Germany). The government will be constructing a narrative portraying themselves as victims of a natural disaster, doing their best in impossible circumstances and leading us all to victory in the war against Covid-19; in this they will be aided by large sections of the media.

Trade unionists must make sure that ministerial incompetence, arrogance and callous disregard for human life are not forgotten and there is a holding to account. When the pandemic is over, we cannot go back to how things were before. We need to take the public with us in demanding a return to NHS founding principles, a publicly funded, managed and delivered health service with democratic control, linked to a national social care service. Renationalisation of the NHS; proper funding; an end to PFI, the Health and Social Care Act and the Long-Term Plan for the NHS; and an end to outsourcing and privatisation. We are witnessing a tragedy unfold and a government scandal of momentous incompetence. The right lessons must be learned.

Dr John Puntis is co-chair of the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public.

Statement on key worker testing and contact tracing

Since the start of the lockdown we have called for contact tracing and widespread testing as the only means to establish the true prevalence of COVID-19. This is what the World Health Organisation urged all countries to do from the very beginning. 

We welcome Matt Hancock’s announcement of testing for symptomatic key workers and their families, and the promise of contact tracing. 

The fundamental principles of public health are finally being applied to the country’s most critical healthcare crisis. We congratulate the government on reaching this step. We should have been here weeks ago.

The government has acted far too slowly to change the fate of over 18,000 people who have already died. With each prevarication and each false promise an irreversible choice was made. When China, then Italy, then France were locking down, our government should have known what had to be done. But they waited.

In this ultimate test of the social contract, the livelihoods and lives of citizens depend upon the speed with which states act. Better late than never is simply inexcusable. 

The next challenge will be logistical: the rapid recruitment and training of contact tracers, and the robust and reliable collection of data. We wait in hope that the government’s response will be swift and substantial. Anything less would be another great disservice to us all.

Despite coronavirus and clapping, the Tories remain hostile to a public NHS

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.