The Coalition Government abolished the public NHS in England when it passed the Health and Social Care Act in 2012. This Act didn’t directly affect the NHS in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but could have grave long-term consequences for the NHS in the devolved nations, including Scotland.
The Act effectively reduces the NHS to a funding stream and a logo. Behind the logo, corporations bid for health contracts in a regulated market. Privatisation of the NHS has hitherto been incremental as successive governments have passed legislation to promote privatisation. But this Act, described by Lord David Owen as the ‘secretary of state abdication bill’, removes the duty on the secretary of state for health to secure and provide comprehensive health care. So the rate of privatisation and closure of NHS services is accelerating across the country.
Since 2003, government policy in England has been to channel billions of pounds of scarce NHS funds to the for-profit private sector. For example the ‘independent sector treatment centre’ programmes diverted more than £5bn, and the government has recently announced that all GP services will go out to tender for private providers. The consequences of the market are felt every day as people see local services closing, and experience real reductions in access to diminished services – from struggling A&E departments to outsourced cancer care. Loss of NHS services mean people will have no choice but to go without or pay for health care through health insurance or out of their own pocket.
Handing the NHS to the market is a highly inefficient way of delivering health care, introducing new costs that are not experienced in public systems. There is mounting evidence that the English NHS is paying for work regardless of whether it is done or not: with one contract, Netcare did not perform nearly 40% of the work it had been contracted to do, receiving £35.1m for patients it never treated. The English NHS is on a track towards the US system, where commercialisation results in around $750 billion wasted each year due to overtreatment, undertreatment, and billing, invoicing, and marketing costs.
Aneuran Bevan, the founder of the NHS, said the NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it. Here in England a number of health experts are working on a new Bill to restore and reinstate the NHS in England so that people will once again enjoy the same rights as are currently enjoyed by their relatives and friends in Wales and in Scotland. But the abolition of the NHS in England means decisions and control increasingly rest with commercial providers and the role of regulators is to keep the market operational, not to meet people’s needs or to ensure equity of access and access according to need.
If the English NHS is not restored, consequences for Scotland are serious. The NHS in Scotland may not be suffering these changes, but funding for the NHS in Scotland is allocated through the Barnett formula, so any reduction in NHS funds in England translates into reduced funding for Scotland.
The consensus that once bound the UK is breaking down due harsh policies enacted in England by the current government. Policy differences between Scotland and England are growing. Education, long term care and NHS are key examples of where Scotland takes a different direction on policy, but remains under the stranglehold of the Westminster Treasury. A Yes vote in the referendum would free Scotland from this stranglehold, and allow politicians in Scotland to control public finances as well as NHS policy.
But protecting the NHS is not just a question of funding; it is a question of political will and determination. People in Scotland must take more active steps to protect the Scottish NHS from international market predators and ensure that services delivered and provided are both effective and efficient. The Scottish NHS is not perfect and we must safeguard against the introduction of charges, especially if health and social care are merged and integrated. There are some things that should not be for sale in the market but should be available on the basis of need, and in the referendum Scots should make a decision that safeguards the principles of access and universality for health care and for education.
The vision of an NHS, which is there when you need it and free at the point of delivery, is part of our social contract. We, the people, own our NHS, and politicians have to be brought to account for the decisions they make. The NHS was formed as a result of the consensus that came about after two world wars, when so many gave their lives. But across the United Kingdom, our shared entitlements are now at risk and our NHS is based on different principles in different nations.
Promoting the principles of a public NHS will require creating new alliances across the regions and countries of the UK. Vested corporate interests are so keen on breaking up the welfare state and our entitlements and rights not just in the UK but across Europe. These interests need to be challenged by developing new economics. For international investors and US corporations the health systems of the countries UK are seen as the unopened oyster ready to be privatised and exploited – hence the controversial debates and opposition to TTIP – the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the USA and Europe that could make NHS privatisation irreversible.
Popular sovereignty and self-determination are the crucial route to upholding political principles. English governments have acquiesced to private interests. People in Scotland should uphold the principles of a public NHS when they vote in the referendum in September, and choose the way and means to defend our vital principles. At the present time, and in the absence of any reversal of neoliberal policies in England, the clearest way to defend and promote the principle of a public NHS is to vote for Scotland to have full powers and responsibilities of an independent country.