I have worked as an NHS nurse for nearly 28 years. Over the last couple of weeks I have read or heard more than once the comment “stop using the NHS as a political football”. I need to be very clear about why that is so offensive to those of us working in the health service every day.
I don’t think you need me to go over the headlines, I’m pretty sure you’ve seen those for yourselves – highest A&E waiting times in decades, constant black alert (a status hospitals use to show when they are no longer able to cope with demand), cancelled operations, long waiting times for cancer checks, staff leaving in droves etc etc. It’s real, I can testify to that.
In the early 90’s when I came in as a student nurse, the Conservatives had been in power for a very long time. The hospital was neglected and needed desperate upgrading and repair. The staff were on low pay and there were increasing moves towards an internal market. When Labour came in in the late 90s there was a buzz of positivity amongst staff and sure enough building work started, investment came in, staff had much needed pay increases and money was available for training and service improvement. It may not have been perfect, but it was so much better.
The Labour government under Blair had the right aims but it used the wrong means. They further opened a door to privatisation, a door which – predictably once the Conservatives won in 2010 – was flung open wide. I watched colleagues then brace themselves for some rough years with a true sense of fear for the future.
The fear was founded.
Since 2010, our health service has been neglected by the government. Billions of pounds worth of contracts have been handed to private health companies. That’s not just pharmacies and catering, but child cancer care, maternity care, mental health and scanning departments. This privatisation by stealth wears an NHS logo alongside its Circle or Virgin health badge. That means that the public may not realise that any profit now made by these outsourced services goes into the pockets of shareholders, not back into the health service or local hospital where it belongs. That money could be used to support non-profit making areas like intensive care. This political decision means that the staff you and I have paid to train and develop now must sign private contracts, change their uniforms, possibly lose their NHS pensions and contracts, and work instead for a private company.
Staff pay has been frozen, so that in real terms nurses and junior doctors have suffered a 10-20% cut to their incomes. Staff have begun to leave in droves over low pay, stress and unmanageable workloads. The political choice to create a “hostile environment” has meant the loss of vital EU and non-EU migrant staff, on which the health service is utterly dependent for numbers and skills. The political decision to put an end to health service bursaries has left student nurses paying £9300 per year to work on wards and train in universities. Little wonder, then, that this has caused at least a one third drop off in applications to train, meaning we now have a deficit of 43000 nurses and growing.
Social care or “care in the community” is now paid for by our local authorities; authorities that have suffered vast cuts at the hands of the Conservative government and can no longer afford to adequately fund care. Consequently, our elderly, disabled and vulnerable come into hospital sooner and, once in, are unable to be discharged.
The pressures of all this has led to clogged wards, clogged departments and clogged A&Es. Hospitals stop coping and hit Black Alert, meetings about anything other than emergency management are halted and so is all non-urgent surgery. Financial penalties are incurred from unmet waiting targets. Money the internal market would have given us for services we have now had to cancel doesn’t appear. This terrible situation spirals and spirals as bad becomes worse and worse becomes unmanageable. Colleagues work their hardest and do their best under the most trying of circumstances, but despite having all the good will in the world, we are at breaking point. Stress increases and more staff go off sick and leave.
This perfect storm of disgraceful and deliberate mismanagement from our government leaves us with an NHS that is neglected, underfunded, understaffed and utterly on its knees. Yet, still, the amazing people I have the honour to work alongside daily keep going, and keep aiming higher, because they are those kinds of people: hardworking, committed, and compassionate, wanting the best for all. Exactly the kind of people you would want to look after you and yours. We care. This government is abusing those people, us, ignoring our concerns and breaking us.
The NHS is yours. YOU paid for it, you trained me, you pay me month on month and YOU and your family deserve a service that is fit for purpose.
I have seen a Labour government invest in our NHS and I have seen consecutive Conservative governments neglect it. I have seen the conservatives sell off public assets and services to shareholders and private companies (water, rail, gas etc etc) leading to worse services and not saving us a penny. When I hear people say that the NHS shouldn’t be treated like a political football, then I truly wonder what we can talk about. The NHS was created by politics. Brave compassionate, people centred politics and it could be saved by the very same.
This isn’t just about money. Labour will put money into the NHS but it will do far more. It will end patient charges, invest in education for the health workforce, and restore public health grants. It will stop bed cuts and reverse privatisation. It will ensure services are provided in house and stop selling off NHS land. It will protect the rights of our migrant workforce, stop Conservative plans to further introduce the private sector and provide joined up, care with the community. Labour will invest in mental heath and in public health so that front line services like health visitors and Sure Start centres return – giving vital health information and support. Labour will bring back the bursary for nurses and other NHS trainees and bring in a generic drug company to manufacture and develop affordable medications. The list of truly thought out policies in this manifesto goes on and on and it is clear throughout that front-line staff have been involved and listened to in its creation.
Once again Labour are ready to play the right kind of politics with our health service and whilst you may wonder how we can afford that I ask you how we can afford not to. Every public utility and service privatised by political choice has ended up costing taxpayers more than it did under public ownership. The NHS is the cheapest and most cost-effective way of providing health to a nation, a fact borne out by many investigations of alternatives. Private health would cost both governments and individuals more.
You may not want anyone to play politics with the NHS but I’m afraid it was born of politics. Let’s make sure it doesn’t die that way.
Vote Labour on December 12th, please. It is my public duty to ask, it might be my last chance.
Lisa from Stapleford