Health bosses plan to hand management of a Cambridgeshire hospital to the private sector – but workers and campaigners are resisting, writes Tom Walker
For the first time ever health bosses plan to hand over the management of an entire NHS district hospital to a private company.
Three firms are bidding to take control of Hinchingbrooke hospital, in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, by May next year (see right). This would put profits before patients – and set an incredibly dangerous precedent for the whole health service.
Protesters will march against the plan this Saturday, 10 July.
Steve Sweeney, secretary of Huntingdon and St Neots trades council, is part of the campaign to keep Hinchingbrooke public and one of the protest’s organisers.
He told Socialist Worker, “When these companies get their hands on public money, they end up taking millions in profits but not delivering proper treatment to patients.
“Workers at the hospital are absolutely against privatisation – but many are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.”
This huge hospital is absolutely vital. It serves a local population of more than 161,000 people and employs up to 2,000 health workers.
In 2007/8 more than 2,500 babies were born at the hospital and its accident and emergency department treated more than 33,000 people. It treated 157,000 patients in total that year.
Handing the management to private operators means profit-hungry firms will decide what services are provided, how many staff are employed, what areas are contracted out and, in time, what conditions and pay rates operate.
Pro-privatisers point to the hospital’s accumulated £40 million debt.
But this debt is owed only to the NHS itself by the local trust – it is just a legacy of the disastrous creation of an “internal market” in the health service.
It is less significant when compared to the hospital’s annual turnover of £96 million – let alone the billions the government has given in handouts to bankers.
And there are no plans to make the new private contractors take on a penny of the debt.
Hinchingbrooke is a testing ground for plans to break up the NHS.
Stephen Dunn, director of strategy for the East of England health authority, boasts several other health authorities have asked him about how the bidding process is being run.
And former NHS chief executive Mark Britnell, now working for city consultants KPMG, told privateers’ magazine Health Investor that, “more than 20 organisations could follow Hinchingbrooke’s lead in the next 12 months.
“Our own analysis suggests there are perhaps 20 or 30 organisations that will be in a level of distress not dissimilar to Hinchingbrooke over the next year or so.”
The Tories are itching to apply the logic that underpins their attacks on state education, in the form of academy expansion and “free schools”, to the health sector. They want all public services to be run by a “big society” of vultures and profiteers.
This Saturday’s demonstration is important for everyone who wants to defend the NHS and public services.
Four years ago health bosses were made to think again on cuts and even the possible closure of Hinchingbrooke after more than 1,000 people marched against it. We can win again.
There are currently three bidders to run Hinchingbrooke:
The privatisation conglomerate Serco is perhaps best known for running the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre.
Serco’s empire now includes trains, prisons, leisure centres, speed cameras, entire local education authorities in Bradford, Walsall and Stoke, “fleet support” at navy bases and even managing the development of nuclear weapons at Aldermaston.
It also runs the Docklands Light Railway.
Serco’s profits soared to £195 million this year. It claims its “experience” of prison healthcare makes it qualified to run a hospital.
Ramsay Health Care
Australia’s biggest private healthcare company, Ramsay, has consistently lobbied for the introduction of a US‑style healthcare system in Australia.
Its founder Paul Ramsay is one of the richest people in Australia, with a fortune of £320 million.
Last year the company suddenly pulled out of a ten-year contract for the Bromley Private Patient Unit at the Princess Royal University Hospital in south London. It said “the contract was not proving commercially viable” – and left the hospital to pick up the pieces.
Circle says it is different to other healthcare firms, because it is run on the John Lewis-style partnership model so beloved of both Labour and Tory politicians.
But 50.1 percent of Circle is owned by “City institutional investors”.
The company’s boss Ali Parsa is a former Credit Suisse, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs banker. His home apparently features an indoor fishpond, an “expansive” garden terrace and a mosaic of a Persian king.
A major new threat is hanging over the whole NHS in England and Wales.
The government is soon to set out plans for wholesale change in health that will open the way for widespread privatisation.
Sources close to the Department of Health have revealed to Socialist Worker that proposals could include:
80 percent of the NHS budget will be controlled by general practitioners (GPs).
But they will not have the facilities or the desire to deal with all the administrative and financial issues this raises.
So GPs will tend to subcontract this role.
Most analysts expect that private healthcare firms will provide at least half of this service.
These firms will gain a role at the centre of the health service, profiting from their contracts, and opening a way to channel cash towards their own facilities.
Many people won’t see the proposals as a move towards privatisation – but they are.
Everyone needs to know where this will lead.
The argument is similar to the one over the “free schools” that the government is pushing. It says groups of parents can take over a school.
But most will then subcontract management to the private sector.
Strategic Health Authorities will be abolished and replaced by an arms-length “NHS Management Board” with regional offices.
The chief executive will no longer be formally accountable to the government.
That means that the government will simply be able to turn its back on the problem if there is a public outcry over any aspect of the NHS – for example if there is a massive rise in the number of patients contracting an infection while in hospital.
“That’s an issue for the NHS Management Board,” the secretary of state for health will say.
The internal market inside the health service has long been a source of anger for those who want to keep the NHS public.
Currently, the Department of Health sets “prices” for treatments, and encourages competition between different “providers” to deliver services.
The Tories plan to “free-up” this market by handing pricing over to an “independent regulator”.
That will likely lead to more profitable procedures ending up in the hands of private sector firms in much the same way that Independent Treatment Centres have scooped up easy treatments.
This leaves the tougher jobs to the NHS.
That will mean more of the NHS budget leaking into the profits of greedy multinationals.
The Tories have thrown down the gauntlet for the future of the NHS.
It is vital that we give them a taste of the passion that working class people have for defending Britain’s most vital public service.
Dr Wendy Savage, vice-chair of the Keep Our NHS Public, told Socialist Worker that the government’s plans for the NHS are “ill thought out”.
“This is back of a fag packet stuff,” she said.
“The coalition government says its wants rid of Strategic Health Authorities and emasculated Primary Care Trusts, but it has no real plan for what to replace them with.
“This will doubtless have a big impact on patient care.
“I’m all for democracy in health care, but real democracy means involving patients, carers and health workers in how best to manage the NHS.”
The campaign to defend the Whittington hospital in north London shows that fighting back can win.
It defeated plans to close the accident and emergency unit and maternity services at the hospital after thousands demonstrated in February this year.
The government was forced to step in and overrule the local health authority over the cuts after massive pressure from workers and the local community. Whittington shows that campaigning and protesting can get a result.
Now the Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition has organised a coach to take people to the Hinchingbrooke protest.
It will leave from the main entrance of Whittington hospital at 9.30am this Saturday.
Speakers include Martin Booth (Unison), Dr John Lister (Keep Our NHS Public) and Jerry Hicks (candidate for Unite general secretary)
Saturday 10 July, 12 noon
Assemble Riverside Park, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE29
Called by Huntingdon and St Neots trades council
Supported by Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts, Keep Our NHS Public, the Right to Work campaign, National Shop Stewards Network and local union branches