Our analysis of what is wrong with the UK health system and National Health Service, the reasons behind it, and what we as ordinary people can do about it.
The British National
Health Service is massively under-funded, overstretched and under-staffed.
Over twenty years of Tory-initiated privatisation have wrecked the
already-imperfect health system, leaving it bureaucratic and top
heavy, and driven by government targets rather than the health of
What’s wrong with it?
Much ill-health in Britain can be attributed
to overcrowded or poorly maintained housing, insufficient or poor
quality food, environmental pollution, bad sanitation, or stress
and lack of exercise due to working and travelling patterns. The
health service is only set up to deal with people when they've already
fallen ill, not to prevent illness in the first place. Until these
economic causes of ill-health are dealt with we will continue to
have an over-stretched health service regardless of how much money
is thrown at it.
Overcrowding and lack of cleanliness in hospitals
is part of the same problem. The “superbug” MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant
Staphylococcus Aureus) is currently responsible for 2 out of every
1000 deaths in NHS hospitals and 3 out of every 1000 deaths in NHS
nursing homes. 100,000 people are infected and 5,000 people killed
annually from Hospital Acquired Infections,
more than are killed on Britain's roads. It
is generally accepted that this has been contributed to by the privatisation
of cleaning services - putting the responsibility into the hands
of private companies, ultimately responsible to their shareholders
rather than the public. Labour-intensive services such as hospital
cleaning can only be made more profitable by cutting wages, making
staff work longer hours or simply reducing the numbers of cleaners.
This has lead to a marked deterioration in the service, with numbers
of cleaners slashed by 45% - from 100,000 in 1984 to just 55,000
Despite this, the majority of healthcare in
the UK is still state-owned. This means that instead of private
shareholders, the NHS is responsible to state bureaucracy, which
is hardly akin to true public accountability. The use of targets
(from waiting times to numbers treated) reduces the level of care
given to each patient in favour of appearances of efficiency.
A patient is ejected from Casualty or a doctor’s surgery too
soon, resulting in a larger knock-on cost as ailments go untreated
or misdiagnosed. This leads to an almost autistic obsession with
numbers as a way of selling the management system to voters, regardless
of the actual effect on patient care.
The centralised structure of the NHS, combined with its size (it
is the third biggest employer in the world, after the Chinese People’s
Army and the Indian Railway) result in massive inefficiency. For
effective decisions to be made, information about changes on the
ground must percolate through the entire structure to the top. The
problem with this is that the sheer complexity of the system means
that any models built by layers of management several levels removed
from face-to-face patient care are necessarily incomplete.
Health workers are underpaid and over-worked.
This has led to a very high turnover of staff, poorer quality work
and high incidence of workplace injuries and other psychological
disorders such as stress and depression. In the last year alone,
50,000 UK trained nurses left or retired with just over 20,000 recruits
joining and another 12,000 coming in from abroad, leaving a shortfall
of 18,000. Pay for many, especially nurses is
appalling, especially considering the long hours and years of necessary
training. Much of nurses’ time is consumed with form-filling
and red tape, which again takes time away from patient care.
There is a false distinctions between health
care and “social care” for the elderly. Many families
and pensioners have to be unnecessarily means-tested to the extent
that thousands are forced to live in poverty because the government
claims they can technically pay for treatment, disregarding the
fact that so many of these families have to be able to have enough
to live on after they have paid for the “care”. Social
care workers are also poorly paid – much more so than NHS
staff – but they should not feel morally obliged to work for
minimal wages, as it is a job like any other.
The cost of medicine and equipment is spiralling
due to profiteering pharmaceutical companies and the patent laws
that support them. Drug corporations claim their prices are massively
higher than the cost of manufacture in order
to recoup their Research and Development investment. In fact top
U.S. drug companies spend 2.5 times more on advertising than R&D,
and only 22 per cent of big pharmaceutical companies’ staff
are employed in R&D, while 39 per cent are in marketing.
Patent laws protect profits for the corporations,
but kill millions of people who die from preventable diseases. When
Brazil started ignoring patents and manufacturing generic (non-brand)
drugs themselves, the price of anti-HIV cocktail therapy plummeted
from $10,000 to only $300 a year, slashing the number of deaths
from the illness. We need to ignore these patent
laws, protected by governments, as well.
Ultimately we believe that class and capitalism
are at the root of most of the problems. Capitalism is a society
that is divided by class. The working class consists of all the
people in this society who do not own property or a business we
can make money from, and therefore have to sell our time and energy
to a boss - we are forced to work. Our work is the basis of this
Our interests are opposed to those of our bosses
and the profit-making corporations we work for. Companies must always
be more ruthless in making cuts and making a profit, for if they
didn’t they would go bust or another company would take them
Cuts in the numbers and wages of hospital cleaners
and other staff, therefore, aids capital by increasing profit margins,
yet it hurts the working class, who are treated in NHS hospitals
and some of whom work in the NHS. Poor quality food in hospitals
is good for business, since the cheaper the ingredients the greater
the profits, but again harms the people who eat it. Likewise patents
are great for protecting the revenues of pharmaceutical corporations,
but bad for the millions of workers denied treatment as a result.
The working class therefore has a direct interest
in improving all aspects of the health service, where capital does
not. It is within us, the working class, therefore that the possible
How can the problems be solved?
We believe that the biggest problems with the
health service are things which we can all, as ordinary people,
help improve. Privatisation, hospital closures, stressed and unrewarded
staff and massive bureaucracy are all imposed by the current economic
system – they are not inevitable.
Ultimately we believe that, like all industries
and services, the best people to run the NHS are the workers and
users of that service. In the case of the NHS, this means the doctors,
nurses and other health workers themselves should control the hospitals
and care homes, in conjunction with patients rather than unaccountable
bureaucrats and profit-driven corporations. Rather than central
control decisions are much better made as close to the affected
regions as possible - with full input from those affected by them.
A decentralised, federalised service, controlled from the grassroots
by councils of health workers and patients, and in genuinely public
ownership would be far superior to the current system, both in terms
of flexibility and accountability to the needs of patients. Far
from being a pipedream, co-operative health services were commonplace
in Britain before the advent of the NHS, and do exist and have existed
in other parts of the world.
What can we do practically?
While this will not happen in the short term
there is a lot that can be done to take more into the hands of the
workers and patients. Decent pay, short working hours and good conditions
ensure more effective, happier staff, will improve patient care
and fill the workers’ shortfall. Unfortunately these are not
reforms which will be handed down from above. Health workers can
organise to demand better conditions, being prepared to take action,
and other people and patients’ forums should support them.
Health workers can take direct action which does not harm patients
like a traditional strike might, such as good
Communities can organise to fight hospital closures
in their areas, alongside patients’ groups and health workers.
We believe that the key, therefore, is strengthening
rank and file organisation of health workers, within the trade unions
and without, and including contract, temporary and agency staff
as well as permanent employees. We should also try to improve patients’
forums, and build links with health workers with regular meetings
to discuss supporting one another and improving service. Read
more about workplace organising...
Those of us who are do not work or are not patients,
we can organise in our communities to create organisations which
can struggle alongside these groups, and improve other aspects of
our local areas to build solidarity and confidence amongst ourselves.
We can argue for organising and taking direct action in our own
places of work to build a powerful movement of workers who can stick
together to win demands for all of us. Read
more about community organising...
These organisations, based on true face-to-face
democracy and self-organised direct action, in addition to improving
our lives in the here and now, can be an embryonic new society.
A society based on the equal co-operation and activity of all people
– a libertarian communist society. A society where the social
and economic causes of ill-health are greatly reduced, and services
are provided according to need rather than ability to pay, and the
current postcode lottery of resource provision.
1. The NHS is being destroyed by cuts and
privatisation started by the Tories and continued enthusiastically
2. Bureaucracy and politically-motivated targets are hamstringing
the service and damaging patient care
3. The NHS is based on cure rather than prevention of illnesses
in the first place – and much sickness is caused by poverty,
poor diet and over-work
4. The problems of the NHS are caused largely by capitalism –
improving it is in the interests of the working class, but not
5. It is important, therefore, to attempt to (re-)build a powerful
workers’ movement which can win improvements in our conditions
at work and in our communities
6. In the health service itself we need to stand beside health
workers to resist privatisation, and to help organise all workers
in the healthcare industry and fight for better wages and conditions.
We can try to build links between patients’ forums and workers,
to argue for more self-management, better patient care and less
7. Ultimately we believe the most effective way to run the NHS
is as a publicly-owned service, run directly by its workers and
patients. We can strive for that, as part of an entire co-operative
libertarian communist society, where many of the root causes of
much ill health are eradicated.
with some information from an article by Colchester Solidarity Group
News Online Monday, 7 March, 2005, 15:31 GMT
12 January 2005
3. The Observer, Monday, 10 January, 2005, Page
”The figures, compiled by UNISON, the UK's largest union after
asking a parliamentary question, showed that there were 55,000 hospital
cleaners, either NHS employees or people working in the hospitals
for private cleaning contractors last year. In 1984, just before
the private contracting began there were more than 100,000.
A spokesman for British Health Secretary in 2003, John Reid, claimed
that although the numbers of cuts were undisputed, the size of the
NHS estate had reduced by 20 percent in the past two decades and
so there was less physical space to clean. Even this is true, it
still means massive staffing cuts of nearly 33% per unit of area.”
4. For just one example, see Channel
news online Monday, 25 April, 2005
6. For example, the cost of daily dose of patented
vs generic fluconazole anti-fungal drug in June 2002 in Guatemala
was $27.60 (Pfizer patent), and in Thailand was only 1% of that
- $0.29 (Biolab generic).
Internationalist, June 2002
7. Deborah Socolar and Alan Sager, ‘Pharmaceutical
marketing and research spending: the evidence does not support PhRMA’s
claims’, Boston University School of Public Health.
before the World Health Organisation of the Indian Drug Manufacturers’
9. In Brazil, after the Government began producing
generic ARVs, prices fell 82% and the price of the AIDS 'cocktail'
therapy fell from $10,000 to $300 a year. As result AIDS deaths
have fallen by half and the country saved $677 million treatment
costs from 1997 to 2000.
10. In Peckham, London, before Labour introduced
the NHS after World War II there was a co-operative healthcare system.
Also see The
People’s Clinic: Italy, June 1971, where people suffering
sub-standard care occupied an empty building an set up a volunteer,