No more cuts and privatisation! Kick out the profiteers!

By Eóin Dawson

In April, Health Minister Robin Swann admitted that it could take 10 years to address the waiting list crisis in Northern Ireland. With the suspension and curtailment of many services, the Covid-19 pandemic had a massive impact on waiting lists. Even before this, however, Northern Ireland’s health waiting lists were amongst the longest in Europe, and the longest of any NHS region. 

Swann emphasised the need for “multi-year budgets” to allow for better planning of services. But the fundamental issue is inadequate funding, and public funds going to the wrong places. Sinn Féin Finance Minister Conor Murphy allocated an additional 5.7% to the health budget this year, but this falls far short of the estimated £1 billion required to address our huge waiting lists, by hundreds of millions of pounds. 

This was described as a “standstill budget” by the Health Minister. In concrete terms, this means hundreds of thousands of people – 1 in three of the population – will still be left awaiting treatment, from children and young people in need of mental health services, to older people awaiting surgery.

Attempts to cut and privatise by stealth

The effect which privatisation has on delivery of health and social care services cannot be ignored. From private nursing homes, home care and pharmaceuticals, there are companies and individuals making astronomical profits off the back of the NHS. 

The architect of the 2011 Transforming Your Care (TYC) review, John Compton – who has links to private healthcare – has been using this crisis to further press the agenda of “centralisation” and, in effect, further cuts and privatisation of our healthcare. TYC was criticised by trade unions in health – so much so that it was quickly followed by “Systems Not Structures” in 2015 and the Bengoa Report in 2016. However, these subsequent plans contain fundamentally the same ideas, simply repackaged.

Trade unions must lead fightback

The waiting list crisis and other problems in our health service are the product of decades of underfunding, privatisation and cuts by politicians at both Stormont and Westminster. If allowed to continue, this approach could spell disaster for the NHS as a public service, delivered free at the point of use and run in the interests of the people. Those organisations where workers come together to defend their pay, terms, conditions and services – the trade unions – are best positioned to lead a campaign and ensure that the NHS remains in the hands of those who fought for, built and run it; the working class.

Trade unions in health must use all tools at their disposal to defend the NHS. This means fighting to ensure that sufficient places and funding are available to make professional training accessible to the next generation. It means fighting for a real pay-rise of 15%, to keep staff in the service. It means fighting for increased staffing levels, to ensure sustainable working conditions. 

It should be clear that negotiation alone is insufficient to achieve these goals. Trade unions in health must now begin – riding the wave of support for health service workers that currently exists – to take their fight for the NHS to the politicians in the form of industrial action. A well coordinated, aspirational campaign in the defence of the health service could win concessions, see waiting lists slashed, create opportunities for thousands to gain qualifications and work, kick out the profiteers, and begin the process of reclaiming our NHS.