This should be a wake-up call to properly fund the NHS and address the long-standing shortage of GPs. What it shouldn’t be is an excuse for further outsourcing of our health services for private profit – something this Government is busy pushing ahead with.
Before the Covid pandemic arrived GP services were already under intense pressure. GP numbers per head of population had begun declining after reaching an all-time peak under Labour in 2009.
In 2015, in response to what was already becoming a serious problem, the Conservative Government vowed to hire 5,000 more GPs within five years. However, this promise has failed to address the decline and numbers have continued to fall year-on- year, with a further loss of 220 GPs last year.
In January 2020, just before the pandemic began, the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) wrote to the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock warning him that severe staff shortages were causing ”unacceptable” delays for patients.
The letter explained the crisis as two-pronged: excessive workload was causing burnout and experienced GPs were leaving, while the unattractive prospects meant newly qualified doctors were choosing other career paths.
These pressures are also driving the closure of GP practices. Last year 96 practices closed causing an estimated 263,000 patients, almost all in England, to seek new surgeries, increasing the problems of workload further.
The pandemic turned up the heat on a simmering crisis and the pot has boiled over, with front-line staff bearing the brunt of patient’s frustrations.
My concern is that this anger will be exploited by a government whose members have long been on record talking up the opportunities for profit-taking from our health service.
It might be helpful here to be clear about what those who warn of the “privatisation” of the NHS mean. They do not mean that the public will have to pay up front for services.
Instead, their tax and National Insurance payments will disappear not into health services, but into multi-million pound CEO bonuses and shareholder dividends. The question is does this matter? I would say yes it does, because I believe it works against getting the quality of service we deserve.
Any private company has to make profit. I am not against profit, but that need has to be a company’s first priority, whatever they may say, because if they don’t make money they cease to exist. Some of the companies currently buying up GP practices claim they will barely make a profit. So if the benefit doesn’t come directly from operations, where does it come from?
Perhaps access to the data in millions of patient records? Perhaps relationships with pharmaceutical and medical device companies? We do not know for certain, but we do know it will come from somewhere.
Worryingly, the proposed new Integrated Care Systems (ICS), which will combine NHS trusts with GP services as commissioners from a single budget pot, will no longer be required to put contracts out to tender, but instead will award them directly. There are genuine concerns that these ICS bodies will be unaccountable, with private sector providers sitting on their commissioning boards and holding private meetings not subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
We need look no further than the recent example of the “VIP lane”, created by this Government for personal protective equipment (PPE) suppliers with connections to the Conservative Party, of where a lack of accountability and the profit motive leads us: millions of pounds of public money wasted on substandard equipment while nurses made do wearing bin liners.
I know first-hand from my work helping to represent some of the thousands of women who have suffered from unnecessary surgical mesh implants how companies will use their influence to push treatments through and sideline patient voices. Patients are not “consumers”, they do not choose their illness nor do they choose when it afflicts them. Free, universal healthcare should be a right in a civilised country and its provision should put the patient – not shareholders, not chums and donors – at its centre.
Emma Hardy is Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle.
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