To reverse the damage to our NHS, it must be properly funded as a publicly owned service, says DIANE ABBOTT
AT party conference this week, the NEC agreed 10 pledges on what Labour stands for, setting out the framework for what it will campaign for and what a Labour government will do. As shadow secretary of state for health, I very much welcome the pledge on the NHS and social care. In stating that “we will end health service privatisation and bring services into a secure, publicly provided NHS. We will integrate the NHS and social care for older and disabled people, funding dignity across the board, and ensure parity for mental health services,” Labour has shown that we are the party that will protect our NHS and provide much-needed investment in our social care. This is in stark contrast to the Conservatives, who, in this government and in leading the coalition, have worked to bring the NHS to its knees. The NHS has experienced the lowest annual spending rises in its history — despite the much-vaunted promises to “protect” NHS spending. The Health and Social Care Act has wreaked untold damage, opening the door to systematic privatisation. The result has been deep cuts to services, while waiting lists are growing and the government is failing patients by missing key targets on cancer treatment and A&E waiting times. The government is driving through £22 billion in cuts by 2020 and right now the NHS is short of 50,000 front-line staff nationwide. Accompanying the crisis in the NHS, there is an ever-deepening crisis of social care, with one in 10 over-50s not having their care needs met. Rather than get to grips with the scale of the crisis, the government has been flat-out dishonest, promising the health service almost double what it actually plans to spend — squeezing the NHS by making cuts to public health, social care and health education budgets. Its actions resulted in unprecedented industrial action by junior doctors who felt compelled to take action to defend the future of services and patient safety. It is clear that the Conservatives are undermining the future existence of an institution regularly described as one of Britain’s greatest achievements. That everyone should be freely able to access the healthcare they need was first a political aspiration that captured people’s support — and its implementation was transformative for the lives of millions. To secure the future of our NHS and create a social care system that enables people to live dignified, independent lives will take a radical vision and unwavering commitment — a commitment that Jeremy Corbyn and I share. We would repeal the Health and Social Care Act as the first step towards undoing the damaging and wasteful marketisation that has been inflicted over many years. This means returning the NHS to what it was originally conceived as — a publicly owned, publicly funded, publicly accountable universal service, as outlined in the NHS Reinstatement Bill. The massive crisis in our NHS has had a knock-on impact in so many aspects of our daily lives. The government’s superficial £1bn-a-year pledge to tackle mental health problems was packaged as a revolution, yet it is barely enough to sustain the already sorely inadequate service. Britain has a mental health crisis and this government is making it worse through cuts in funding, services and support, and by creating a more insecure and unequal society. Similarly, the main reason for the extent of the crisis in social care is that support to help people stay safe and independent at home is mainly arranged by local councils — organisations that have borne the brunt of spending cuts. In a clear false economy, cuts to social care mean more and more patients languish in hospitals. There is a huge knock-on effect on the NHS, where each year more older people are finding themselves trapped in hospital, simply because there isn’t the care available for them. This is to the detriment of their physical and mental health. It is completely against the ethos we should be aiming to deliver in social care. The NHS and social care are interlinked and in order to build a sustainable future for both we need not only proper funding, but to recognise how our public services impact upon each other. It also means we need to tackle the barriers that exist to us becoming a healthier society — barriers that create greater costs for us all. While this government is using the discredited concept of austerity to cut our health and care sectors’ budgets, depriving them of the finance they need to support our sick and older people, under Corbyn’s leadership Labour is clearly opposing the Tories on issue after issue in defence of our NHS, from backing the junior doctors to opposing the scrapping of nurses’ bursaries. But Labour is not just about opposing the Tories’ failed policies of austerity. It’s also about setting our sights higher about the type of society we want and that’s why our 10 pledges are so important. We can make this radical change with a genuinely transformative economic policy that is not based on cuts but instead invests to grow our economy. That is the way to save our NHS and social care.