Going, Going, Almost Gone: UK Government Speeds Up Privatisation of National Health System

Operating on the maxim of “never let a good crisis go to waste”, the government is exploiting the pandemic to embed even more private interests across the system.

Like many healthcare systems around the world, the UK’s National Health System (NHS) has been through the grinder over the past year and a half — largely as a result of the perfect storm created by the Covid-19 pandemic but also due to disruptive forces unleashed by Brexit. Yet if anything, the institution enjoys even more public support today than it did before the pandemic.

Drive through any town, village or city neighbourhood and you’ll find homes and businesses displaying tributes to the NHS in the form of rainbows, often drawn by young children back in 2020 when the pandemic threatened to overwhelm the country’s hospitals. Yes, some individuals may bemoan the treatment they receive from their doctor or in hospital, or the NHS’ successive crises of underfunding and the huge numbers of unfilled vacancies across the sector at every level, but for the vast majority of British citizens the NHS, founded in 1948 on the principles of free and equal  access to medical treatment, is sacrosanct.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Conservative government, or many of the senior managers it has put in charge of the NHS. While continuing to lavish praise on the bravery and sacrifice of the NHS’ frontline workers, the government, operating on the maxim of “never let a good crisis go to waste”, is exploiting the pandemic to embed even more private interests across the system. David King, a former chief scientific adviser, recently told The Guardian that the government is slipping through plans to “effectively privatise the NHS by stealth” in “the name of a pandemic”.

Gradual Hallowing Out

Of course, the NHS will not be sold off in one day, as happened to British Gas or Royal Mail. It will happen bit by bit, as part of a piecemeal hollowing out that has been going on for years. And it will probably happen a lot faster in England, which is the only part of the UK to have created an internal market for the NHS. The ongoing privatisation of NHS services will not result in patients being charged for healthcare at the point of service — apart from for specific services that users already have to pay for, such as eye testsdental careprescriptions and aspects of long-term care. Instead, the focus is on outsourcing NHS services — footed exclusively by the State — to private companies, which can then turn a tidy profit.

That process is accelerating sharply. With the proposed Health and Social Care Bill, currently going through parliament, the government plans to grant more authority to the Health and Social Care Secretary, including the right to approve the chair of the new integrated care boards (ICBs), who in turn can choose to appoint representatives from private companies to their boards. There are also concerns that the new bill will enable NHS managers to award contracts to private companies without a tender process. 

It is these two measures that are raising fears about yet more corporate influence over the NHS. The British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors in the UK, called it the wrong bill at the wrong time…

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