A decade of Tory cuts mean the NHS will be overwhelmed by the coronavirus epidemic. In Italy, doctors are being made to decide who lives and who dies. This will soon be the case in Britain as well. The poor face a lottery with their lives.

A decade of Tory cuts mean the NHS will be overwhelmed by the coronavirus epidemic. In Italy, doctors are being made to decide who lives and who dies. This will soon be the case in Britain as well. The poor face a lottery with their lives.

By mid-December 2019, 83% of critical care beds in ICUs across Britain were full. In January a fifth of NHS trusts reported 100% bed occupancy. This was before the coronavirus outbreak. Now the system is about to be overwhelmed by a storm of unprecedented magnitude. Decades of attacks on the NHS and social care, particularly over the last 10 years of Tory rule, will leave millions of workers utterly defenceless.

Last year was the worst year on record for the NHS, with 4.5 million patients on waiting lists. What was once confined to winter now impedes care all year round. We already have overflowing wards and patients lining the corridors. We already have burnout, sickness, depression and suicide among staff and the reason is clear: austerity.

UK health spending is at historically low levels. But this austerity is about to take a more devastating toll than anyone could have imagined. The UK has the lowest provision of intensive care beds anywhere in Europe. The latest statistics from December 2019 shows only 4,048 available beds, with 3,048 already occupied. The UK has 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people. In Italy, where hospitals are so overwhelmed they must decide who lives and who dies based on age, this figure is 3.2.

What emergency measures does this government propose to implement to prepare us for the storm? In the latest budget, the Tories spoke of 5,000 extra beds. This is a pitiful measure when we consider that 8 million people could be hospitalised in Britain in the coming months. In reality even these are not “extra” beds but beds rented from private healthcare providers for the sum of £2.4 million a day!

Staffing crisis

Then there is the issue of staffing. To staff extra beds required would an extra 10,000 highly specialised intensive care nurses. Austerity however has meant staffing is already at crisis levels. Attacks on working conditions, nursing bursaries, etc. have left the NHS with a shortfall of 40,000 nurses, and 100,000 staff vacancies in total across the NHS.

What is the government going to do about this? They have promised leavers and retirees will be called back to frontline NHS duty. This is a cruel joke. These retirees are precisely the people who will be the most vulnerable, with a higher fatality rate when exposed to the virus.

The Telegraph described graphically the horror existing doctors are facing: “[A consultant] in his 50s, [has] somewhat restricted lung capacity because of an orthopaedic problem – he spent this weekend making a will and putting his affairs in order. He had realised that with the current NHS leadership, there was basically nothing he could do to avoid catching it in coming days. Crunching the statistics, he realised that several consultants in the hospital will probably die.”

The Doctors’ Association surveyed 1,618 medics and asked them if they felt the NHS was ready to take on the task of combatting coronavirus. Only 8 felt it was. Nonetheless, these heroic staff - from doctors to nurses to cleaners - are preparing to enter battle with the virus. This pandemic has, with justification, been compared to war. And just like the soldiers of the First World War, our NHS staff are “lions led by donkeys.”

“War is terrible,” Lenin once observed, “but it is also terribly profitable.” The cost of this outbreak on NHS staff and millions of working people does not bear thinking about. Neither do the massive profits that will be made at their expense. The profiteering of the pharmaceutical giants must also be placed under the spotlight to understand what is coming.

Profits for the bosses

There have been multiple international virus outbreaks since the year 2000 (SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, Swine Flu etc.). No one can say that the ruling class didn’t see this coming. Yet just as national healthcare systems driven by the market are underprepared, so too is the world’s ability to combat these threats on a pharmaceutical basis. The only concern of the giant pharmaceutical companies is the needs of the shareholders. So whilst Boris has gambled everything on the speedy development of a vaccine, even if such a thing is created and patented in time to save lives, it will come with a hefty price tag attached.

The fact is that if it weren’t for the profit motive, we might already have been most of the way there in terms of a vaccine. Research into a SARS vaccine (a coronavirus, like Covid-19) was canned back in 2004 as soon as the death rate diminished and it ceased to be profitable to continue research. They didn’t care whether this research might be useful in the context of a new outbreak. This is because the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t exist to save lives; it exists to make money.

We could have had 20 years of research into that disease as a starting point for the fight against Covid-19 today. Instead pharmaceutical companies are scrambling for a vaccine. Note that Trump, always on the lookout for a “great deal”, has offered to buy it up once it hits the market, so that the vaccine can be used solely in the United States!

The rich will get richer out of this crisis, that much is clear. But whilst they do, the poor will pay a terrible price. The rich can purchase Covid-19 tests, whilst the poor are being told not to even bother ringing 111. It is the poor who are far more likely to be affected by the chronic diseases that place people at risk including diabetes, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In fact people in poor areas are more than twice as likely to have COPD than people in wealthy neighborhoods. The rich can buy access to an ICU, should the worst happen to them. The poor face a lottery with their lives.