By Ann Orr

At the time of writing, the third Covid surge is threatening to overwhelm hospitals, North and South. There are significant differences between the health systems, and they are not alone globally as others have faltered. Under capitalism, health is a commodity. Worldwide, we see public health care systems suffering from lack of funding and increasing marketisation, with deadly consequences for working-class people.

So far, we have seen queues of ambulances at A&E departments. In the South, vaccinations for health workers are being impacted by Pfizer’s temporary capacity reduction. IT systems to track vaccinations in care homes were not ready on time. In the North, hospital staff have warned about oxygen shortages and ambulances are relying on drivers from other services.

There has been a criminal lack of planning and preparation. For the last 10 months, we have known that viruses mutate; that winter means additional pressures; that relaxing restrictions risks significant infection spikes; that vaccination programmes require planning and sufficient staff; and that years of underfunding and mismanagement have reduced capacity.

Staff are being pushed to the brink. Unsurprisingly, a recent survey found two thirds of NHS workers are considering quitting. Governments are not only botching the response to Covid, but are also causing significant harm to health workers.

Prepare for a fightback

The Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation is absolutely correct in its call to nationalise private hospitals in the South. The NHS model of free health and social care at the point of use – under threat for a long time in the North – is one to fight for and defend. That means opposing privatisation by stealth, which is continuing in the North during the pandemic.

Trade unions in health should start organising now for action, including strike action if necessary, to make such demands a reality. They should also plan for socially-distanced rallies for investment in health services once the current surge has subsided. Such protests should demand fully-funded public healthcare – run by workers’ and patients’ representatives in the interest of public health, not profit – as well as decent pay for all workers, including support staff.