KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
On March 4th at least 50,000 people are expected to demonstrate in defense of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. The demonstration has been called for by Health Campaigns Together, which is a national network of NHS campaigning organizations and unions. Health Campaigns Together was formed by the advocacy group known as Keep Our NHS Public. It’s a collective of 40 grassroots chapters. Keep Our NHS Public have a dire warning that, “the people of Britain are at a precipice. The National Health Service that has been severely damaged by under-resourcing and privatization.” The healthcare system that has provided cost-effective, universal coverage at free, to the point of need, is being dismantled. However, they say all is not quite lost.
Let’s take a look at this National Health Service promo video.
NHS VIDEO: … On Saturday 4th of March, staff, patients, and Jesus of the NHS will march on Westminster. Years of cuts, closures, pay freezes, and privatization have stretched the NHS and its staff to breaking point. The service cannot continue under these conditions. Properly funding the NHS is possible. So, join us on the 4th of March, when we will tell the government: No cuts. No closures. No pay freezes. No privatization. This is our NHS. And we’re here to fight for it. How about you? So, join us on the 4th of March. Everyone is welcome. Find more videos and information on our Facebook group. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
KIM BROWN: Joining us today, to discuss the state of the National Health Service in the UK and the upcoming demonstrations, is Margaret Ridley. Margaret went to medical school at the age of 18, qualified as a doctor in her early 20s, and later became a consultant psychiatrist in 1985, until she retired several years ago. Margaret was born in 1948, which is the same year that the National Health Service came to be. And she now spends much of her time campaigning with Keep Our NHS Public. She joins us today from the UK.
Margaret, we appreciate your time, thank you so much.
MARGARET RIDLEY: Thank you for inviting me.
KIM BROWN: So, Margaret can you start off by briefly describing your background as a doctor, and what it is that you do now?
MARGARET RIDLEY: Well, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the privatization of the NHS and the fragmentation. And so, I joined a local protest group that happened to be Keep Our NHS Public. And so, we go the Health Service meetings. We challenge what’s going on and we are actually part of a network, I think you said 40 groups. We’re over 60 groups, Keep Our NHS Public, and we have many more affiliated groups.
So, there’s a marvelous network through England of groups campaigning. And what’s very useful is that we meet regularly and we have updates from other groups about their successful campaigns. And it’s a very useful campaigning network. National Keep Our NHS Public thought it was very important to unify all the disparate campaigning groups and the unions. And so that’s why they formed Health Campaigns Together. And so, Health Campaigns Together has been the force behind the organization of this rally on Saturday, the 4th of March.
KIM BROWN: So, Margaret, can you explain to us what has been happening to the NHS? As we heard in the promo video, they have been enduring a series of cuts, of downsizing, of closures. I’m assuming that is of medical facilities. So, explain to us, or maybe give us an idea of, when NHS was operating at its most effective? And compare that to how it operates today?
MARGARET RIDLEY: Well, privatization started with the Thatcher Conservative government. The Cabinet actually discussed privatizing the NHS and introducing American health insurance. But they decided that doing this in one fell swoop would be too unpopular. So, they have gradually done it little by little. And the Blair Labour government continued with this privatization. But things really took a turn for the worse in 2010 with the Health and Social Care Act. And this Act removed the responsibility of the Secretary of State for providing health service. That now the Secretary of State just has a duty to promote health. And so that has opened the door wider for privatization.
So that was one massive upheaval in the NHS in 2010. And one of their officials, the government officials, described it as such a large reorganization it could be seen from outer space. And we now have Simon Stevens as Chief Executive of NHS England. He had previously worked for United Health. He worked for ten years in, I think, their global health division. And he has started another complete reorganization of the NHS, introducing American insurance-style management structures, and cutting the budget further. So, that has been going on in the background.
And what has really produced the crisis in the NHS this winter is the fact that hospitals have basically run out of beds. Because elderly patients who would normally be looked after in the community with social care and nursing homes, and residential homes, are not able to access these services. Partly because the government has reduced the social care budget, and partly because these private homes are actually private for-profit companies. And if they don’t make a sufficient profit from looking after the elderly, they close down. So, the failure of adult privatized social care has completely destabilized the NHS over the winter. So much so that the British Red Cross has called the state of our health services, in particular our A&E (“emergency”) departments, as a humanitarian crisis. And this is the scandal of what was a comprehensive health service.
When the post-war Labour government introduced the National Health Service, Nye Bevan, who was the architect of this service, wrote a book entitled In Place of Fear. And the fear then was a fear, before 1948, that you couldn’t afford healthcare. And people of that generation will describe what it’s like watching members of family die because they didn’t have the money to fund health care.
We now have fear coming back into the NHS. We have fear when you dial 999 for an emergency ambulance for a relative, you have the fear that the ambulance may not arrive in time because the ambulance services are so grossly under-staffed. We then have the fear that — is the ambulance going to go to the local NHS A&E service? However, that might have been closed, or it might be temporarily closed, because there’s such a queue of ambulances waiting to get into the A&E, the ambulances are diverted elsewhere. Then you’ve got the worry of whether your relative is going to survive queuing in the ambulance waiting to get into A&E.
And then you have the situation where patients are queuing on trollies, waiting to go into A&E, and then waiting to be admitted to the ward. And in a hospital washroom one week, two patients died, waiting on trollies to be admitted. And elective operations have been cancelled because the crisis of not being able to discharge elderly patients into the community, because they’re actually sitting in the surgical beds.
So, elective operations have been cancelled. Operations for cancer patients have been cancelled. And if your relative needs a life-saving operation, you’ve got the problem they might be refused it because there aren’t any intensive care beds. So, this crisis in the NHS has worsened significantly since Christmas and this is why we’re taking to the streets on Saturday.
KIM BROWN: Margaret, so help me get a more complete picture here. Is there a private healthcare system that operates alongside of NHS in the UK?
MARGARET RIDLEY: There’s always been a small private healthcare system. And what previous governments have done is they’ve kind of contracted out routine surgery to the private sector. They actually pay private hospitals more to do the operations than they pay the NHS hospitals. And, of course, the private hospitals don’t have to pay for staff costs and staff training. So, there has always been a small private service.
But, with the previous reorganizations, NHS hospitals can now, I think it’s 49% of their income from private patients. And so, a lot of hospitals are actually expanding their private role.
KIM BROWN: So, help us also explain or help us understand how NHS has been politicized in the UK? Especially recently with the Brexit vote, with those who were in favor of Brexit, such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farange? Really pushing this idea that Britain rescinding its dollars to the European Union that could have been better served at NHS. So, how has NHS been politicized, sort of used as a political football in the UK?
MARGARET RIDLEY: Yes, it was used as a political football. We’re quite sure that those people who said that they would divert money to the NHS weren’t telling the truth. And they haven’t diverted any money to the NHS since we’ve voted to leave Brexit. I think the government is still maintaining they’re not privatizing the NHS. The Prime Minister announced in Parliament recently that they were not privatizing the NHS, the same day as, I think, a southwest service announced they’d been given a contract for, out of our services, emergency services to a local private for-profit company.
KIM BROWN: Margaret, what parts of the country have been most harshly affected by resource cuts and privatization?
MARGARET RIDLEY: The north of England seems to be the hardest hit. And perhaps a third of A&E departments – maternity, pediatric departments – are threatened with closure. In fact, the organization that initiated the march on Saturday, was from Huddersfield, 30 miles east of Manchester, and their hospital is under serious threat.
KIM BROWN: So, Margaret why has there not been a stronger outpouring of anger towards government to change its policies towards NHS? I mean, the fact that Britons have had this universal healthcare system has certainly been the envy or the envy at least of some Americans and even, you know, other places as well. So, why has the government been allowed to incrementally privatize this, what seems to be, something that is quite valued by the English?
MARGARET RIDLEY: Yes, I think firstly, I think people believe what the government says. The government says they’re not privatizing it. But then public opinion is becoming more concerned about how the NHS is managing. But, the main reason I think is that the government maintains that they haven’t got any money. And so, they follow this neo-liberal nonsense. And the public, because the government says they have to balance the books, like running a household, people believe them. And the mainstream media have only just recently started talking about the crisis in the NHS but they have not at any stage mentioned that this political austerity is what it is — political austerity — that there’s no basis for this in economics whatsoever.
KIM BROWN: And Margaret, lastly, I mean, you were an exceptional student, obviously, being admitted to medical school at the age of 18. You qualified as a doctor in your 20s. Describe for us how drastically NHS has changed from when you were working as a practicing psychiatrist back in the ’80s to what it is now.
MARGARET RIDLEY: I think that the pressure on the staff has increased tremendously. I’ve come across so many staff now who say that they finish their shift on the verge of tears because they feel so ashamed of what they’re doing. They know that what they used to do was provide a much better service. And now they’re so rushed, they don’t have time to discuss things with patients, and I think that they just become so demoralized.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Well, we certainly hope to get an update after the march, which is scheduled for March the 4th in the UK. Is this going to be held in London? Where is this march going to actually take place?
MARGARET RIDLEY: Yes, in London.
KIM BROWN: Alright. Well, we’ve been joined by Margaret Ridley. She is a retired doctor. She’s also now working with the organization Keep Our NHS Public. On March the 4th there will be a demonstration expected to draw as many as 50,000 people, perhaps more, to protest the ongoing privatization and budget cuts to Britain’s National Health Service. Margaret, we really appreciate your time today, thank you so much for joining us.
MARGARET RIDLEY: And thank you very much for having me.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.