By Dave Reid
Hundreds will be rallying in Tredegar in South Wales on July 1st to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS. The march assembles at the house of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, who based the principles of the NHS on the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society. He used his experience in providing cheap healthcare in Tredegar as a model for a national health service. He said “All I am doing is extending to the entire population of Britain the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more. We are going to ‘Tredegar-ise’ you.”
Bevan attempted to apply socialist policies to solving the health crisis in Britain after the Second World War. The concessions he made to private vested interests – the continuation of private health for the wealthy, GP and other services being provided by private business and the unaccountable nature of the health authorities – have come to haunt the NHS ever since (most recently in the Gosport hospital scandal).
Bevan had to overcome the opposition of the Tories and leaders of the medical professions who fought tooth and nail against the NHS being formed at all. And the Tories have been attempting to unravel the gains of the NHS ever since.
But Bevan also faced opposition from within his own party – the Labour right wing who echoed Tory arguments that the NHS was “unaffordable”. In 1951 Bevan resigned from the cabinet when the right wing Labour chancellor Hugh Gaitskell imposed prescription and dental charges. Later in the 2000s Gaitskell’s heirs, Blair and Brown, drove through even more privatisation of the NHS than the Tories had. Bevan argument that Gaitskell’s charges were only the thin end of the wedge and threatened the very principles upon which the NHS was founded were proved only too true.
And the principles underpinning the NHS is currently under threat in Wales from Welsh Labour. While the demands on the health service has grown spending in real terms has been cut and access to its provisions has been reduced. Welsh Labour has taken an axe to many services including A&E. The Welsh government intends just five A&E departments for the whole of South Wales. Communities in the south Wales valleys are still campaigning for NHS services to be returned, while the Welsh health minister considers more cuts.
In the winter health crisis the depleted NHS facilities were simply overwhelmed. Patients waited for hours in ambulances outside hospitals, some passed away on trolleys in hospital corridors. Some never made it to hospital at all. NHS staff came under unbearable strain – many nurses moved to agencies so that they could lower the number of hours they worked, putting further strain on the NHS.
Cuts Not Inevitable
The cuts to the NHS are framed around the idea that there are certain objective forces that are inevitable and the health service must be re-organised to take account of these – an ageing population, an increased demand for health services, a scarcity of doctors and nurses and “scarce resources” i.e. spending cuts.
An ageing population means that spending on the NHS in Wales should be increased not held back. Closing facilities in local hospitals takes away access for older people. One woman in Trinant in Gwent told Socialist Party campaigners it took her a three hour journey each way every day to visit her husband in Neville Hall hospital in Abergavenny.
Scarce resources are not inevitable – they are human-made by Tory and Labour governments. Above all the Tory cuts must be fought. Instead of pretending that the cuts to NHS services are the best way forward, the Welsh government should lead a campaign to force this weak Tory government to come up with the cash. The fact that the Tories have grudgingly been compelled to promise more money for the NHS in the future, shows that they are under pressure and can be forced to come up with more desperately needed cash.
The Welsh Labour leaders have not even protested against the Tory cuts to Welsh health spending. They have passively accepted them, seemingly accepting the Tory argument that there is no alternative to the cuts. But of course, as Jeremy Corbyn has pointed out, these cuts are not inevitable they are a political decision. So too is the decision to cave into spending cuts and implement an entirely re-configured health service to match Tory spending priorities.
There has to be a political will to fight for the NHS. One of the main reasons for ‘rationalising’ NHS services is the difficulty in attracting sufficient doctors to work in the over stretched and over stressed Welsh NHS – “nothing to do with funding” they say.
But it has everything to do with funding. Socialist Party Wales has been campaigning since 2012 for the Welsh government to launch a programme of recruiting and training young Welsh doctors to a new scheme of medical education. The Welsh government should offer students free education and training for at least six years plus a grant in exchange for the promise to work in the NHS in Wales for at least five years. That would cost money but it would guarantee a stress-free environment for doctors in the Welsh NHS and put an end to the vicious circle of retaining doctors.
Where would the money come from? Well if the £20 billion a year cut from Corporation Tax by the Tories were returned then immediately the Welsh closure programme could be reversed. If we nationalised the pharmaceutical companies and the rest of the private sector that rip off the health service we would save billions.
Socialist Party Wales demands:
- No more cuts to hospital services in Wales – keep A&E and childrens wards at Royal Glamorgan hospital
- Restore local A&Es to Ystrad Fawr, Aneurin Bevan, Llwnypia, Mountain Ash, Neath Port Talbot and Prince Phillip hospitals
- End the staff shortages – for the recruitment of hundreds of new health professionals with an offer of free education plus a grant for all medical and nursing students who promise to work in the Welsh NHS for five years.
- For the Welsh government to refuse to implement Tory spending cuts – campaign for a return of the billions cut from spending on public services