By Lucy Marron

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the reality of years of chronic underfunding of the NHS. The reality of cutbacks has been evident in the scramble to obtain appropriate PPE, the lack of available ventilators, as well as staff shortages. The pandemic has led to a substantial increase in those on waiting lists, reflective of a longer-term crisis within the NHS. This raises the question of NHS management and illustrates the impact of privatisation. 

The Health Minister Robin Swann has proposed a “restructuring of the NI health service” in response to the crisis, where 1 in 7 are on a medical waiting list. In reality, these are plans which the Stormont politicians have been aiming to introduce for years. This has resulted in Down A&E being shut down “temporarily” under the cover of the pandemic. The likelihood is that this will be a permanent closure, given the experience of the Belfast City Hospital and elsewhere. Despite the apparent intention of the change being to alleviate the waiting time crisis, the centralisation of health services into urban areas creates a problem for rural access and doesn’t work when put into practice. The measure realistically is a step to further undermine the NHS, with procedures being outsourced to the private sector.

Despite the issues exposed by the pandemic, the importance of the NHS has been illustrated, and it is clear that there is widespread consensus on this across Northern Ireland. To save our NHS, we need to fight for it. The health worker strikes in late 2019 for pay parity were a positive example of the power working-class people have when they stand together and demand change. There have been successful strikes and walkouts across the UK during the pandemic, fighting for better pay, appropriate PPE and safe working conditions. These fighting tactics work. If we want to save the NHS, a broader movement of health workers and working-class people will be pivotal.