Our National Health Service celebrated its 63rd birthday last week. I think it's been one of the great success stories of the past century - an institution dedicated to treating the sick, relieving suffering, and saving lives, regardless of ability to pay.
Apart from the fact that the NHS is there for everyone when they need it, I have reason to be grateful to this fantastic service. It saved my life when I was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer some years ago. And I want the NHS to be there for generations to come.
To mark the anniversary, I delivered a giant birthday card to the Department of Health, along with other trade union leaders. And later we lobbied Parliament to ask them to join us in wishing the NHS Many Happy Returns. This was not just a celebration of 63 years, but an impassioned plea to our politicians to make sure that the world's largest and best publicly funded health service is not dismantled.
For that is what I fear will happen if the Frankenstein Health and Social Care Bill is passed into law. The LibDem arm of the coalition Government has made a great deal of noise, belatedly, about the changes it has wrung from its Tory partners to sweeten what will be a bitter pill. But, those changes are just not enough to prevent our NHS being dismantled or to save it from those who want to make a profit out of the sick.
I don't want to see anyone, rich or poor, waiting unnecessarily for treatment or suffering in pain, but I don't want to go back to the bad old days where treatment depended on ability to pay. There are still people alive today who remember what healthcare was like before the dawn of the NHS. We don't want to go there.
The Health and Social Care Bill allows private companies in to run parts of our NHS and removes the cap on the percentage of private patients that can be treated. I think it is fundamentally wrong that the money we all pay in tax to fund our NHS, should be diverted into big business and competition instead of the increased collaboration that patients' need. That money should be spent on delivering care to patients and not on shareholder profits. The danger arises that decisions about treatment will be based on cost, not clinical need. And people who can afford to pay will be able to jump to the front of any queue, regardless of clinical priority.
Over the lifetime of the Labour Government, huge investment has transformed the NHS, cutting waiting lists and times, and equipping it with staff and resources fit for the 21st century. I believe it would be a criminal dereliction of duty if the present government threw all that away for the sake of narrow political dogma.
But the current Bill going through Parliament is not the only threat to our NHS. For despite its pledges to protect the front-line, alongside these damaging changes, the Government is demanding £20 billion in "efficiency savings" from the NHS. Many health workers, including nurses, are being made redundant and waiting lists are beginning to grow.
I don't buy the "there is no alternative" to fast and deep public spending cuts that has become the mantra of this Government. The alternative is there, if the political will is there.
If there's money to fight wars and there's money to bail out the banks, there's money to fund our NHS. How about tackling tax avoidance and tax evasion by the super-rich and what about a 0.05% financial transaction (Robin Hood) tax that could bring in billions?
I don't want the NHS to limp towards its 64th birthday, fatally wounded. I want it to gallop onwards to its 65th, its 100th and way beyond, constantly evolving to care for future generations.
Surely, one of the first responsibilities of any government is to secure the health, well-being and welfare of its citizens? This Bill in its present design will do the opposite. It should be scrapped.
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