By Rachel Harris
Next year sees the 60th anniversary of the creation of the NHS. It was the first time anywhere in the world that completely free healthcare was made available on the basis of equal citizenship rather than wealth.
Working class women undoubtedly benefited the most from its creation. For the first time they had access to services such as community health centres, child welfare clinics, family doctors, health visitors, midwives and vaccination and immunisation programmes.
Working class women still depend on the NHS for decent, free healthcare provision but this is under threat. The government’s NHS policies, based on creeping privatisation and the introduction of the market are ruining the NHS.
Debts of about £800 million are predicted for the past financial year, and there is little sign of the financial crisis abating. Thousands of jobs have been cut with trade unions predicting that up to 20,000 jobs could go. It seems that everyday there is news coverage of yet another hospital closure, more redundancies and more cutbacks in services.
Often it is women’s services that are the first to go. A survey conducted by the Royal College of Midwives reveals that there are huge cutbacks in midwifery staff levels and maternity wards across the country are being axed or moved. Many gynaecology and women’s health wards are under threat.
The government’s decision to change the way services are delivered, through the introduction of a competitive healthcare market and the increasing involvement of the private sector has led to the instability and financial debt faced by many hospital and primary care trusts.
The health trade unions with the support of the TUC have come together under the banner of NHS Together. This joint work is to be welcomed. Delegates at Unison’s health conference, of which the majority of members are women, voted overwhelmingly for a campaign to include a day of action, national demonstrations and support for branches organising strike action. However the NHS Together alliance has backed off calling a major national demonstration instead opting for regional days of action.
There have already been many regional and local protests. The campaign now needs to move to the next stage which must include a national demonstration and industrial action. Unison General Secretary, Dave Prentis, at the union’s health conference said that he would support strike action but this hasn’t translated into Unison actually calling for, or organising industrial action against the cuts.
It is possible to organise strike action within the NHS. In September staff working at the supply agency NHS Logistics took strike action against the selling off of the network to private company DHL. It would also be possible to organise local strike action where cuts are happening or failing that other methods of industrial action such as a work to rule campaign or an end to free overtime.
The union campaign has been lacklustre with a whiff of defeat about it. One strand of the campaign seems to imply that the problem with the cuts is that the unions aren’t being consulted about them! The unions lack the political will that is necessary to stop the current crisis. They don’t want to rock the boat too much for the Labour Party before the local elections in May and the forthcoming election of a new party leader.
It is possible to stop the government’s assault on the NHS. There is overwhelming public support for the campaign to defend the NHS. Many local community groups have taken the initiative, where the unions have failed, and mounted active campaigns against the closure of local hospitals and health centres. There have been lots of well attended local demonstrations and campaign activities including a successful campaign in Derbyshire to stop the privatisation of a local primary care trust.
The unions need to act upon the anger of patients and staff. They are strong enough to stop the attacks that this government is making on the NHS. The unions need to build a broad campaign with community campaign groups which includes actions such a mass national demonstration, industrial action and the unions standing up to the Labour Government both locally and nationally.
The creeping privatisation of the NHS must be stopped. The NHS is public and belongs to us all it should work in the interests of those use its services and those of us who work in it. The introduction of private involvement in the NHS means putting cost before care. The government has launched a massive attack on the NHS as well as other areas of the welfare state: the creation of foundation hospitals and academy schools, the introduction of top-up fees and attacks on workers pensions are all due to the government’s agenda to dismantle welfare provision in this country.
Women were at the forefront of the campaign to establish the NHS and the welfare state. We now need to mobilise women to defend it.