The NHS is faced with a perfect storm of staff absences and soaring COVID infection rates. While Boris Johnson intends to ‘ride out’ this wave of COVID, the NHS is struggling to tread water.
With the government’s ‘Plan B’ failing to hold back the tsunami of COVID cases, multiple hospital trusts have declared ‘serious/critical incidents’ recently, leading to staff being redeployed and routine surgeries being cancelled. Meanwhile, the military has been deployed to London hospitals to plug staffing gaps.
With an estimate of 1-in-15 people being infected with COVID over Christmas (rising to 1-in-10 Londoners), the government’s mishandling of the Omicron variant has made this wave the largest of the three-year-long pandemic.
Point of collapse
Despite the government’s efforts to blame only the virus for the deaths and suffering, the NHS has long been in no fit state to fight a pandemic.
Privatisation and austerity have stripped the NHS of its staff and resources. With 100,000 job vacancies in the NHS, and staff leaving in droves, the public’s health increasingly relies on skeleton crews.
While the government plans to open ‘Nightingale surge hubs’, workers are pointing out that there are no more nurses to staff these extra sites.
In turn, those NHS staff who remain are being worked to the point of collapse. A recent survey by the Medical Defence Union, for example, found that one in four NHS doctors are so tired – due to growing workloads and longer hours – that they are unable to safely perform their jobs.
Communities have been similarly ravaged by Tory austerity. 89% of pharmacists feel at risk of burnout, a consequence of increased workloads and inadequate staffing. In the care sector, a similar mental health crisis is well under-way.
The health of workers and their families is undermined by systemic factors: crowded housing reminiscent of Victorian slums, holiday hunger, psychological burnout from heavier workloads, to name but a few issues.
Keep calm and carry on
How does the government respond to the unfolding health disaster? Lies, lies, and more damned lies.
Boris Johnson repeatedly denies that the NHS is overwhelmed, while reaching for the ruling class’ favourite phrase: we will have to ‘live with COVID’.
For the millions of people with disabilities in the UK, living with COVID sounds like a cruel joke. Over 150,000 dead; 1.2 million suffering from long-COVID syndrome: this is the fate for workers under capitalism.
In one startling example of the Tories’ plaster-over-the-cracks approach to the NHS, one North West hospital trust has asked heart attack patients to organise their own lifts to hospital due to ambulance shortages.
Now into our third year of the pandemic, what does the future hold for the NHS? ‘Permanent pandemic’, once dismissed as fatalism, now seems closer to the truth. A failure to distribute vaccines to poorer nations has laid the foundations for a never-ending string of COVID variants.
A backlog of 4.7 million patients, whose treatments have been delayed due to the pandemic, will add more pressures to already stretched healthcare services. This includes a potential 45,000 ‘missed cancer patients’, based on a drop in urgent GP referrals.
And as the national debt racks up, workers will be forced to foot the bill. This will of course extend into more cuts to healthcare in hospitals and the community, precisely at a time when extra resources are needed.
The impending cost-of-living crisis, with energy bills forecast to double by April, will further endanger the health of workers. Last winter, 8,500 people were estimated to have died due to being unable to heat their homes – in the fifth richest country in the world.
Workers have not taken this lying down. Rank-and-file anger has pushed the trade unions into a fighting stance, albeit limited by the weakness of their leaderships.
The Royal College of Nursing (the nurses’ union) has sent a letter to the government, questioning their approach to the pandemic. The British Medical Association (the doctors’ union), meanwhile, has made multiple media appearances highlighting the lack of access to PPE and lateral flow tests.
We should be clear: no amount of strongly-worded letters or media soundbites will suffice in taking down this rotten system. Workers need to organise around bold socialist demands, and replace hollow rhetoric with militant action.
A recent indicative RCN ballot for industrial action reflects growing radicalism amongst nurses. 51% of ballots were in favour of industrial action, with 89% in favour of actions short of strike. Unfortunately, however, with a turnout of only 23% in England, the ballot did not meet the threshold demanded by the Tories’ anti-trade union laws.
Fight for our NHS
The fight to defend the NHS must be led by the unions and the workers they represent. Instead of class collaboration or inaction, the labour movement should take a militant stance.
United action across the NHS should be organised by the union leaders in coordination with struggles taking place across the public sector. A public sector wide strike would pose the vital question: who runs society – the workers or the bosses?
Such action needs to be accompanied by clear demands for the reversal of all privatisation and outsourcing; for proper funding of healthcare services and staff, provided by expropriating the super-rich; and for democratic workers’ control over the NHS.
No management bureaucrat on a six-figure salary knows how to treat a patient with sepsis, just as no Tory politician knows how to mobilise a patient after a hip operation. Only an NHS run democratically by workers, for workers, will be able to deliver high-quality healthcare to all.
- Full-scale nationalisation of all healthcare assets – from private sector beds to the pharmaceutical industry – under democratic workers’ control
- A globally coordinated vaccine distribution campaign, based on socialist planning, not Big Pharma’s profits
- Healthcare to be properly staffed and resourced, funded by the expropriation of the banks and finance houses