• Take over private healthcare facilities
  • Stop the Tory sell-off
  • Make big business pay
Save our NHS, photo Mary Finch

Save our NHS, photo Mary Finch   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Jon Dale, secretary, Unite union Nottinghamshire NHS branch (personal capacity)

Britain has almost the fewest intensive care beds per person, and hospital beds overall per person, of any country in Europe. How is our NHS going to cope with an influx from Covid-19?

It’s not just vulnerable coronavirus sufferers who are at risk if there are no critical care facilities for them. Patients suffering other serious illnesses and injuries during an epidemic could have nowhere to go.

Some estimates for how much of Britain’s population could contract Covid-19 during an epidemic range from 30% to 60%. While the vast majority will not need hospitalisation, those who do will put even more strain on time and space because of the need for isolation, special protective equipment and extra cleaning.

The government must immediately reverse its decades-long policies of cuts and privatisation. It should also allow the NHS to requisition private sector resources, in particular private healthcare facilities, if needed, to guarantee extra capacity during the crisis.

The NHS had just 4,100 intensive care and high-dependency beds in 2018. Germany has around four times as many per head. Even the US system, unprepared and riddled with private sector inefficiencies, has around ten times as many per head!

The Tories want to use trade talks to Americanise the NHS. But the world’s most powerful economy is showing us the dangerous limits of that system.

Donald Trump’s blinkered understanding of how the virus spreads has worsened its impact. By 1 March South Korea had run 100,000 tests, but the US under 500. By 8 March over 500 US cases had been reported, with many more certainly undetected.

photo Paul Mattsson

photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The US Centers for Disease Control announced tests would be free – but hospitals have nonetheless billed patients thousands for staff time in administering them! Alex Azar, US health secretary, has been unable to report how many have been tested because competing private companies, and the public sector, have created and distributed different tests!

28 million people in the US have no health insurance. Many more are ‘underinsured’ so may have to pay huge bills for testing and treatment. 30% of workers have no entitlement to sick pay.

With a market shortage of diagnostic kits, and Trump’s dismissal in February of the viral threat as a Democratic Party “hoax”, the US could see one of the worst epidemics of the advanced economies.

Health officials have now had to promise four million tests in a week. And under pressure, Trump has been forced to promise support for workers so that they are “not going to miss a paycheque” and “don’t get penalised for something that’s not their fault.”

What help the US capitalists will grant is yet to be seen. But the lesson is simple: the state is having to intervene because the market is incapable of running public services and protecting workers.

Meanwhile, even former Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted “the NHS has centralised structures, bureaucracy that it’s sometimes criticised for, but it does mean it can react in a very coordinated and integrated way in a crisis like this.”

What a hypocrite! Thirty years of privatisation by Tory, New Labour and coalition governments have not yet destroyed the NHS, thanks to resistance from workers and patients.

But their direction has been relentlessly towards the US system, including in the post-Brexit trade talks (and beforehand under the EU as well). Socialist policies to save the NHS are vital.

See also many other articles and reports on the coronavirus crisis in the 11 March issue of the Socialist.