Devon has a message for Johnson and Javid: get your hands off our NHS!

Campaigners in Teignmouth at one of several demonstrations across Devon. Photo by the author

The government’s health and social care bill passed its second reading with barely a murmur from the mainstream media, much less any proper public scrutiny. Amongst a number of proposals which open up the NHS to private health providers is the carving up of the NHS into 42 ‘integrated care systems’ (ICSs). One of these will cover the whole of Devon, a county whose population can more than double in the holiday season.

Each ICS will commission health and care services for the local population from a limited budget, giving rise to fears of rationing of care and the ‘postcode lottery’ effect, with increased disparity in standards of care and breadth and depth of service.

The Save Our Hospital Services (SOHS) campaign group point out that:

“The ICS model was developed in the US to reduce the costs of medicare. It was also tried in Spain, but healthcare was returned to the public sector amid scandals over finances and poor patient outcomes.

The Bill removes the right of local councils to scrutinise and object to cuts in services. It allows NHS contracts to be handed to private companies without any tendering process. And it allows the representatives of those private companies to sit on the Boards that decide what services will be commissioned. This marks the end of universal, comprehensive, locally accountable and fully funded health care in England. And the last phase in embedding private corporations into the structures of our NHS.”

Photo courtesy of Rick Gaehl

In Totnes and Barnstaple, members of the public were invited to ‘pull’ the NHS towards the publicly funded, publicly accountable organisation it was designed to be. Masked campaigners representing would-be privatisers such as Sajid Javid, Richard Branson and Dido Harding pulled in the opposite direction.

In Teignmouth, protestors marched from the threatened hospital down to the town and sea front, where their chants of “Scrap the bill! Save the NHS! were met with cheers, claps and toots from pedestrians and motorists alike and leaflets outlining the bill’s dangers were grabbed enthusiastically.

People aren’t stupid. They can see through the tactics of starving communities of health resource and either forcing them into the private sector or accepting that their NHS provision has to be accessed elsewhere. They can see through tactics that keep minor injury units (MIUs) closed ‘temporarily’ under cover of Covid-19 but with every indication that closure will be permament. They can see through attempts to convince people there is insufficient local need or demand for a local service.

They can see through all of this and they are angry. One resident explained the attempts to close her local hospital “by stealth” by not offering Teignmouth as an option when she requested an appointment with the hearing clinic. It was only because she knew she could be treated in her local hospital that she insisted on being given a slot there and not asked to travel to Torbay or Newton Abbot.

Asked what people should do to build on the pressure to scrap the bill (a bill rejected by the British Medical Association, opposition parties, EveryDoctor and other pro-NHS campaign groups up and down the land ), SOHS campaigner Helen Beetham responded with this important message:

We must not be fooled by a commitment to the NHS brand whilst flogging off the heart of this most-beloved institution.If we all follow Helen’s advice, we may yet be able to stop the NHS being reduced to an accident and emergency service while lucrative ‘bread and butter’ work is hived off to the private sector.

This is not a problem confined to Devon. Stories of threatened hospital and MIU closures can be found everywhere. In rural areas, where public transport infrastructure is inadequate, residents are desperate to keep things local, at the point of need.

All over the country, people are waking up to the urgency behind the fight to defend the NHS and resist the privatisation agenda.