We must fight the Tory attempt to use the cover of Covid to sell off our NHS

By Richard Burgon MP

Whether they admit it or not, the Conservatives have always had a problem with the National Health Service. They might try to rewrite the history books, but the truth is recorded: they voted against the creation of our National Health Service on more than 20 occasions. The reason is purely ideological: they see it as an unwelcome intervention into the market.

Some of the more vocal supporters of that neoliberal agenda see the NHS as a last bastion of socialism in our society. I am proud that our NHS was created by socialists, and I think it is the greatest example in this country’s history of socialist principles put into practice. What does that mean? It means that there are some things in life more important than the pursuit of profit. 

However, what we now see – what we have seen since 2010 – is an increased drive for the Americanisation of our NHS. The Conservatives want to turn it into a system where they feel for a patient’s wallet before they feel for their pulse. The truth is that however the history books are rewritten, it was a struggle to create the NHS in the first place, and it is now a great struggle to maintain it in accordance with its founding principles.

There are two key issues for our health service—deep underfunding and greater use of the private sector – and they go hand in hand. The NHS is being underfunded so that people can supposedly be persuaded to stomach greater and greater private sector involvement. The plan is clear: first, the Conservatives defund it so that people get frustrated, and then they say that there is no choice but to hand it over to the private sector. 

An unbelievable £100 billion has gone to non-NHS providers of healthcare over the past decade alone. Every pound spent bolstering the private companies means less spent on people’s healthcare, as the profits are creamed off.

People out there are right to be worried about what the Conservatives want to do with the NHS. The Conservatives believe in free markets for the 99% – with all the harm it brings them in their lives, their pay packets, and their health service – but believe in intervention in the market for the benefit of those at the top. That is what we saw during the Covid crisis, with all those corrupt contracts, the VIP fast-track lane, and billions of pounds going to Serco for the failed test and trace system. 

What the Tories did with the corrupt Covid contracts, they want to do right across our National Health Service. That is why the Health and Care Bill would be better renamed as the Corporate Takeover Bill. 

We hear from the Conservatives that the staffing crisis in our National Health Service was caused by Covid, but the truth is that the huge vacancies and understaffing in the NHS did not start there: the vacancies have been there for a long time, and now there are nearly 100,000 of them. 

Remember when we saw the Prime Minister – who no one trusts anymore, and quite rightly so – standing outside Downing Street clapping for the NHS heroes? But claps do not pay the bills. If we have a Government that values NHS staff in the way they say they do, they need to pay those staff properly. I support the 15% pay increase for NHS staff, who have suffered a decade of real-terms pay cuts. We need to be clear about what that means: that 15% increase is about bringing pay back in line with where it was a decade ago.

What is the way forward? It is for us to realise that no Prime Minister or Government will say to the public, “Do you know what? We’re going to privatise the NHS. Do you know what? We’re going to turn it into an American-style healthcare system.” Of course, they will not do that. They will manufacture consent for those changes through underfunding and through creeping privatisation carrying on at ever greater pace. 

It was a struggle to create our NHS, and it will be a struggle to save it from this final Americanisation. History will judge us poorly if we betray those who went before us and who created our NHS – the greatest achievement in our country’s history and the greatest example of socialist principles put into practice. So, we must step up the fight to defend it.

This is a lightly edited version of a speech given by Richard Burgon on 31st January 

Image: Official portrait of Richard Burgon MP. Source: https://members-api.parliament.uk/api/Members/4493/Portrait?cropType=ThreeFour,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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