Stop the health cuts

Patients with infectious diseases side-by-side with surgical patients, wards grossly understaffed, single – use equipment being used on many patients – even a lack of rubber gloves! No, this is not a description of conditions in hospitals in a poor African country, but reports that we have heard from NHS staff right here in Northern Ireland!

Perhaps this should come as little surprise after the recent revelations of conditions at Stafford Hospital in England. Under pressure from local campaigners, an inquiry was launched by the Healthcare Commission which found that up to 1,200 people died unnecessarily at the hospital from 2005-2008. It was made clear this was because management consistently put cost-cutting over patient-care. The government know that this is not an isolated case but reflects an endemic problem in the NHS, so they are resisting calls for a full, public inquiry.

Serious cuts are already hitting the health service here, thanks to the Assembly Executive’s demand for efficiency savings. At the Royal Hospitals, 20 beds have been stripped from maternity, meaning women who have an “uneventful” birth will be kicked out four hours later! As the Socialist Party has exposed, rehabilitation services are being cut by two-thirds. At the City Hospital, the Regional Ear, Nose & Throat unit is under immediate threat. Scandalously, the Belfast HSC Trust is cutting 58 acute mental inpatient beds from an already overstretched service at a time when tens of thousands of people face unemployment and financial pressure, factors which undermine mental health.

These are just a few examples. Of course, these cuts in services have been accompanied by the loss of 2,500 health workers in the Belfast area, throwing more people on the scrap heap. This pattern is being replicated across Northern Ireland. Much worse is set to come, with £113 million being cut from the health budget this year. The most vulnerable in our society will suffer the most.

The Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, has tried to publicly portray himself as being opposed to the cuts. This is meaningless posturing. His party, the UUP, and all the other main parties are signed up to this budget which slashes public services. If he was really opposed to the cuts, he would resign and mobilise the community to fight back. Local councillors are also complicit in the cuts, with Tom Hartley of Sinn Fein, who sits on the Belfast Trust board, doing nothing to raise awareness or build opposition to the attacks, which the Socialist Party has challenged him to justify.

Last year, 15 top civil servants in the Department of Health earned over £1.4 million in wages and bonuses – presumably for being “efficient” in slashing people’s essential services! More fundamentally, a huge amount of the NHS budget flows into the profits of big business; pharmaceutical giants who charge extortionate prices, construction firms who suck the service dry through PFI/PPP schemes, cleaning contractors who pay poverty wages while delivering an inferior service.

Workers and the community can fight back! The health service unions, with millions of members, can potentially play a crucial role in such a campaign. Unfortunately, the right-wing leaderships of unions like Unison seem more interested in helping management cover up the attacks. If grassroots trade unionists and health workers effectively link up with the communities affected by cuts in a fight for a fully public, democratically controlled NHS then we have the power to drive the vultures out of our health service and save lives.

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