By Adam Machmer
The 2023/24 budget does not make for cheerful reading. Further cuts on top of cuts will be detrimental to our public services and working-class people who rely upon them. If you are looking for a silver lining, you may be tempted to say, “Well, at least we have our health!” And indeed, it is true – on the surface level alone – that the Department of Health is one of two departments to receive a slight increase in funding, at 0.5%. However, such numbers are incredibly misleading.
This minuscule ‘increase’ is far from that in real terms: it does not cover the rising cost of materials, fuel and energy. Even before considering inflation, we are still left with a funding gap of £730 million. Our services were already being slashed due to inadequate funding; the SWAH in Enniskillen and Daisy Hill in Newry will now be directing emergency surgery towards Craigavon Area Hospital due to understaffing. A 0.5% token increase does not make up for it.
Services aren’t the only thing being torn to unacceptable levels – health workers have long been significantly underpaid in Northern Ireland whilst also battling devastating understaffing. We have seen frequent strikes both here and in Britain as workers are being pushed to take difficult measures so that they can pay their bills, including having to rely on food banks. Even worse, as a further consequence of budget cuts, far from increasing staffing levels, 300 student nursing places are to be slashed in Northern Ireland.
These cuts are not inevitable. There is plenty of money in a society where the food, energy and oil industries have recorded immense profits over the past year alone. However, the parties in the Executive want to avoid challenging the hoarding of this wealth to use it for the public good. Instead, over the years, they have supported the project of slashing health under the guise of centralisation. Their ‘solutions’ have not been based upon adequately funding the NHS directly, but instead ‘restructuring it’ and shepherding in more and more privatisation measures. For instance, the DUP’s 5 Point Program proposes that the NHS could be fixed by investing £1 billion in a partnership with the private sector. Why should this money be funnelled into the hands of CEOs instead of public health? The private sector is often heralded as a means to relieve pressure on the NHS, but it does the opposite, acting as a leech on its resources.
Previous returns to Stormont did not exactly herald a renaissance of public services, and in fact, as much harm seems to be done when the Assembly is sitting. It is the working class who have the incentive and the means to change society for the better. Saving the NHS requires taking the lead from the striking health workers. They’re not taking action on pay alone but on the question and symptoms of the NHS crisis. Trade unions should expand the strike action and call public demonstrations for a fully funded health service, using the wealth of the billionaires and kicking out the privateers.