Rising temperatures and COVID infections this summer have once again exposed how fragile Britain’s healthcare system is. To tackle waiting lists, fill staff shortages, and save our NHS, the labour movement must fight for bold socialist policies.

Rising temperatures and COVID infections this summer have once again exposed how fragile Britain’s healthcare system is. To tackle waiting lists, fill staff shortages, and save our NHS, the labour movement must fight for bold socialist policies.

Faced with a rise of COVID cases and heatwave-related illnesses this summer, the underfunded NHS is at breaking point. Underpaid, overworked NHS workers are under huge pressure to maintain ailing healthcare services.

Across the country, there has been a recent increase in COVID infections, as a result of new variants. Although this latest wave is now subsiding, in many hospitals rising cases coincided with new rules about mask wearing, which contributed to greater transmissions.

As a result, there was an increase in COVID cases amongst healthcare workers, exacerbating staff shortages and heightening risks for patients.

Labour shortages

To alleviate this labour shortage, hospital bosses are forcing last-minute shift changes on junior doctors, who are being made to work unplanned day and night shifts, due to the unavailability of locum and agency doctors. This has resulted in stress and anxiety, exacerbating chronic work fatigue.

According to a recent report from the Parliamentary Health and Social Care Select Committee, the NHS and the social care system are facing the greatest workforce crisis in their history, with around 100,000 vacancies advertised at the end of last year.

The same report also predicted that health and care services would require an extra 490,000 staff by the early 2030s. But the government has no credible plan to meet this need. 

This is an ominous warning for the NHS; a sign of a looming crisis that has been manufactured by years of underfunding, all while private healthcare has been booming.

Hospitals are currently having to cope with a system where 1-in-10 clinical positions are vacant. This is leading to low morale, high levels of stress and burnout, and higher levels of absence.

All of this poses a grave risk to patient safety. At the same time, increased numbers of healthcare workers are considering leaving the profession.

As one paramedic from the Midlands told the Guardian:

“There’s a feeling of powerlessness among staff – I can see why people are leaving. The other thing is the hours. All the shifts are 12 hours – if you’re sat in an ambulance for seven hours with the first job, getting more and more fatigued, then you hand over your patient, go to another job, you come back and you’re in an ambulance again for seven hours. And you can’t finish your shift until you’ve handed your patient over – shifts end up over-running quite often.”

Profits over patients

The NHS has been chronically underfunded for over a decade by Tory austerity, which has left Britain’s healthcare system unprepared to deal with the demands placed on it by COVID, an ageing, ailing population, and the impact of extreme weather.

Data shows that the UK has far fewer hospital beds, nurses, and doctors than other countries such as Germany, France, and Sweden.

This year alone, rising inflation means that the NHS is facing a real-terms funding cut of up to £9.4bn. And waiting lists now total 6.5 million – the highest they have ever been. 

In social care, the situation is no better. Per person, elderly care fell by an astonishing 31% between 2010 and 2018.

People cannot access the critical care they need; quality has deteriorated; and services cannot be provided in time. Instead, the most vulnerable are subject to worsening health problems, living in chronic pain, and dying unnecessarily. 

This dire situation is a direct product of privatisation, a lack of planning, and – ultimately – the crisis of capitalism. Tory austerity is not an ideological choice, but one of economic necessity to maintain the profits of the capitalists.

And austerity is not likely to end with Boris Johnson’s tenure as PM. Tory leadership hopefuls Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are both promising tax cuts, which will mean more attacks on the NHS and other public services, deepening the crisis.

Militant action

Militant NHS workers

This situation is clearly unsustainable. Doctors have had enough.

This is reflected by the ‘Doctors Vote’ campaign, which aims to transform the British Medical Association (BMA) into a fighting organisation.

There is tremendous support for this amongst junior doctors, who recently managed to pass a motion in the BMA calling for a 30% wage rise over the next five years, with the aim of restoring doctors’ pay to pre-2008 levels.

This is part of the same process of ‘proletarianisation’ and radicalisation that has been seen amongst other formerly well-paid professions, such as barristers and civil servants.

The leadership of the BMA must link the doctors’ struggle with other battles being waged across the trade union movement.

Today, for example, the Royal College of Nursing confirmed that its 465,000 members will be balloted in a similar dispute over pay. At the same time, the BMA junior doctors' committee has stated that it is "pressing ahead with preparations for a ballot for industrial action".

Elsewhere in the public sector, other health workers, teachers, and civil servants have all been demanding pay increases in line with the rate of inflation.

Uniting all these fights with others – such as striking rail and telecoms workers – has the potential to bring down this decrepit Tory government.

Socialist policies

Healthcare workers are tired of watching the Tories hand over public money to their rich friends, who use this to line their pockets, while procuring substandard and overpriced PPE.

The Tories partied while millions were unable to visit their loved ones or attend funerals; while ordinary people remained isolated, often with aggravated mental health conditions.

For how long must we witness this travesty of justice play out, with disregard for the lives of the working class?

It’s time to make the capitalists pay for this crisis, which they have caused. 

To successfully take on the Tories and their capitalist chums in healthcare, the BMA must fight for socialist policies.

This means answering the cost-of-living crisis with a £15 per hour minimum wage, and for a sliding (rising) scale of wages, with increases in pay, pensions, and benefits automatically linked to inflation.

All privatisation and outsourcing must be reversed. And all private health and care services – as well as Big Pharma – must be nationalised without compensation, integrated into the NHS, and run democratically under the control of those who know best: healthcare workers themselves.