14 years of the Tories – health

UNISON’s national secretaries reflect on the disastrous effect of Conservative government on their sectors

UNISON head of health Helga Pile offers a chronicle of hapless restructuring, endless cuts, cronyism and disrespect

As we approach this momentous election, concern about the NHS is the top issue on voters’ minds. And looking back over the last 14 years, it’s no wonder.

The coalition years, with the Liberal Democrats, kicked off in 2010 with spending increases for the NHS pegged back to 1%, when around 4% a year was needed just to keep up with demand.

At the 2012 London Olympics, the NHS was portrayed as the glowing centrepiece of the UK national story. Meanwhile, then health secretary Andrew Lansley was pushing through his disastrous NHS ‘reforms’, which saddled the NHS with years of expensive reorganisation and inflicted the damaging and unworkable competition rules which were only recently partially reversed.

In 2014/15, after a two-year pay freeze, Lansley’s successor Jeremy Hunt tried to deny health staff even the paltry 1% pay cap recommended by the Pay Review Body (PRB), forcing UNISON members to take strike action and fatally damaging any credibility the PRB process ever had.

Brexit, the ‘hostile environment’ and COVID-19: ‘devastating and disrespectful’

In 2016, NHS funding policy became a political pawn with that infamous ‘We send the EU £350 million a week’ emblazoned on the Brexit campaign bus – an insult to dedicated NHS staff struggling to cope with mounting staffing shortages and unsafe conditions.

Boris Johnson promised 50,000 more nurses in his 2019 manifesto. Yet any growth in workforce numbers has only been achieved by recruiting from around the world. To then subject international staff to the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policies was both a disgrace and another own goal. With a global shortage of health professionals, many are leaving again for better prospects elsewhere.

With 2020’s global pandemic, the contrast between devastating and disrespectful Tory policies and the unwavering respect and gratitude of the public for the NHS could not have been starker. Austerity, outsourcing, Brexit, hollowed-out public health services and a fatal disregard for pandemic planning left patients and staff exposed and subjected to unimaginable horrors.

Lucrative contracts were dished out to cronies via the ‘VIP lane’ for often defective PPE; and then there was the web of contracts awarded at eye-watering expense to private companies under the £37bn test and trace programme.

And while staff battled, the Tories partied.

We will never forget the thousands of health and care staff who died of COVID-19 and the many more for whom the virus has had life-changing effects. The disproportionate impact on Black staff is a chilling reflection of institutional racism within the NHS and across society.

The cost of living crisis: still refusing to listen

Coming out of the pandemic, and into the cost-of-living crisis, there was more of the same.

With NHS vacancies reaching a record-breaking 130,000, the Tories still refused to listen when unions warned that improving pay was essential. It was a stance so misguided that it sparked the biggest wave of industrial action the NHS has seen in decades.

Standing with UNISON members on picket lines, we heard how they were taking action on pay because of the harm to patients from constant short staffing.

The NHS on its knees

Now we approach this election amidst the biggest crisis in NHS history.

  • A treatment backlog of 7.6 million in England alone
  • Crumbling hospitals and clinics. Sewage leaks, falling ceilings and IT outages an everyday occurrence
  • Ambulance crews off the road for hours on end in queues outside A&Es
  • Patients cared for in corridors, cupboards and car parks
  • Chronic under-resourcing creating the conditions for violence, burnout, bullying, fear of speaking out, racism and sexual misconduct in workplaces to go unchecked.

Tory strategists may have hoped that running services into the ground would by now have softened the public to the idea of selling off the NHS. But they have miscalculated.

A new government would bring that precious commodity – hope. Change can’t come soon enough.

One thought on “14 years of the Tories – health

  1. Sue Statter says:

    I find this type of communication extremely frustrating, a blatant plug for the labour party when it is clear that they will continue the privatisation of the NHS
    How a public sector union can still fund (although less and less members actively contribute) the labour party is unbelievable, incredibly complacent and relies on the ignorance of its members for compliance.
    Unison need to represent its members, not the establishment and the Tories in red rosettes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *