Don’t trust the news on the NHS

The media side-lines, belittles and, often, entirely ignores the real reasons behind the healthcare crisis


For ample evidence that the telly news remains the principal truth-distorting organ of our hell-in-a-hand-cart neoliberal dystopia, look no further than how it covers the NHS.

The health service is facing the biggest crisis in its history. A&E waiting times are the longest in 13 years. Cancer operations are being cancelled through lack of beds. More than 20 NHS Trusts have declared they can’t cope with overwhelming patient numbers. The social care system is on the brink. Mental health provision was already pretty dire. Now, for thousands of patients, it’s virtually non-existent.

The explanation you hear on the news exactly echoes the litany of distractions and excuses issued by the government. It’s down to fat people, old people, bed-blockers, foreign health tourists, and the worried well. In other words, just about everyone except the real culprits.

Is it true that shifting demographics are partly to blame? Absolutely. A million more people are over 65 than five years ago. There is an obesity crisis, and an alcoholism epidemic, and millions with smoking-related conditions.

But all these things were foreseeable. We knew they were coming. We could and should have invested to prepare for them. Instead, we — or the government, to be exact — did the opposite.

More than anything else, the NHS crisis was caused by cuts — vast, savage, ideologically motivated reductions in healthcare spending. NHS managers have been tasked by cutting £22bn by 2020. If they succeed, the health service will have suffered total losses of £40bn. Trainee nurses have been stripped of their bursaries — when in 2015 there were already 19% less nurses in training than in 2005. The Tories have slashed the social care budget by 40%. That means more and more elderly people ending up in A&E, and staying in hospital with nowhere else to go. That takes up beds — which, over time, sees the whole system start to grind to a halt.

Why has this happened? Because for half a decade, the government has been run by people diametrically against public-funded services that are free at the point of use — and the NHS is the biggest and most important one of all.

They’re the parliamentary arm of the sector-straddling neoliberal elite — the one tiny but mighty section of society that’s actually benefitted from the forty years of social vandalism and upwards wealth redistribution originally unleashed by Thatcher-Reagan (but obediently carried forward by parties on both sides of the aisle ever since).

They want healthcare, like everything else, to be run for profit by the private sector. That’s the capitalist mission statement — identify a human need, then identify a way of making money out of it. The strategy they appear to have settled on is gradually starving the NHS of funding until it starts to collapse, then presenting the private sector as white knights riding to the rescue.

For six, nearly seven years, the health department’s been presided over by Jeremy Hunt — someone so staunchly in favour of selling it off that he co-wrote a book on privatising it. In 2012, he brought in the Health and Social Care Act. It stripped the NHS of its status as the UK’s automatically preferred health provider. Since then, it’s had to bid for health service contracts, competing against private providers like Virgin and Care UK. In places around the country, out-of-hours care, routine surgeries, ambulance services and more are now provided by private companies. In 2013, the NHS blood bank was flogged to Bain Capital, the private firm first founded by asset-stripping Republican plutocrat Mitt Romney.

But watch the news, and you won’t hear any of this. It’s all scapegoating distractions. At the moment, buoyed by the xenophobia whipped up by the Leave vote, it’s all about so-called health tourists — people deliberately coming here to use the free healthcare. Estimates vary, but that’s generally thought to cost us between £110m and £280m a year. Which sounds a lot at first. But in 2015/2016, the NHS budget is £116.4 billion.

When cuts occasionally do get a look in, it’s as one relatively minor factor among many — and always mentioned in the context of the ‘times are tight’, ‘we’ve got to make savings’, ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’ myth.

Meanwhile: we spent £93bn a year subsidising big business; we’re about to spend £200bn replacing the Cold War relic-cum-weird national virility symbol that is Trident; the richest 1,000 families in Britain now have wealth exceeding £540bn, double what they had before the recession; and the richest 10% now own half of Britain’s £11 trillion total private wealth.

When it comes to the NHS crisis, and so much else plaguing death spiral austerity Britain, the causes and the solutions are actually obvious. It’s just that there’s a whole industry of powerful, well-funded, legitimate-looking people standing between us and the truth.