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Protestors and doctors’ union call on MPs to block new English health bill

The British Medical Association has come out in opposition to the Health and Care Bill, piling pressure on government

caroline m.jpg
Caroline Molloy
14 July 2021, 2.11pm
Outside Parliament today
Caroline Molloy. All rights reserved

The British Medical Association (BMA) has “overwhelmingly” voted to oppose the Health and Care Bill ahead of its second reading today. The group, which is the main group representing doctors in the UK, called on MPs to block the bill, warning it poses “significant risks” to the NHS.

The news raised cheers from campaigners who gathered outside Parliament this afternoon to call on MPs to vote down the profound new reforms to the English NHS.

Speakers including Labour’s Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said that the bill did nothing to integrate the NHS or improve provision. Instead, he said, it made it easier for NHS contracts to be awarded to private health firms without proper process or advertising.

Ashworth also said that the bill would also allow private firms to sit on new local boards that will decide what services are provided and whether they are privatised or even cut altogether – risking serious potential conflicts of interest.

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The BMA’s intervention, coming in advance of today’s second reading, is particularly significant as the doctor’s union did not oppose the last major NHS reforms, in 2012, until much later in the process.

Tony O’Sullivan, co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public, also read out messages of solidarity from supporters and cross-party MPs.

Labour MP Margaret Greenwood warned: “This bill will lead to a postcode lottery, increased local rationing of healthcare and the deregulation of medical professions. It hands the NHS, our most treasured institution, over to big business and is a betrayal of our shared vision of the NHS as a comprehensive universal public service.”

'Conflict of interest'

Philippa Whitford MP, Scottish National Party health spokesperson and a member of Parliament’s health and social care committee, warned that the bill retained “perverse incentives” and that “the presence of private companies on the [new] boards creates a real conflict of interest.

“It would instead, have been good to see the return of a publicly funded and publicly delivered NHS in England as we are lucky enough to still have in Scotland.”

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: “The Health and Care Bill… risks handing out NHS contracts to private companies without tendering and more privatisation by stealth. We know beyond a doubt that this isn’t how to help our National Health Service recover from the effects of the pandemic.”

Jon Ashworth added: “This top-down reorganisation allows the private sector a direct say in the design and delivery of local health care. After a year in which cronyism and outsourcing has seen billions wasted on duff PPE and failing contact tracing, patients and staff know this is the last thing the NHS needs. Labour will be fighting NHS privatisation and urging MPs to vote against this bill.’

Campaigners also highlighted measures that weaken the NHS’s legal duty to provide healthcare to people in England – and that apply stringent new financial rules.

The British Medical Association – which represents doctors across the country – has rejected the government’s argument that the bill is necessary to help the NHS recover from COVID, while also stating it is “concerned about the wide-ranging excessive powers the bill would confer on the health secretary”.

Louise Irvine, a Lewisham GP and a member of the BMA’s ruling body, told openDemocracy (speaking in a personal capacity) that she was “delighted the BMA had come out in opposition to the bill early and can now have a real influence on the course of events” and that she hoped other unions representing health workers would join the campaign now.

The BMA today tweeted that the timing of the legislation is “particularly unwise… while we are still tackling #COVID19 and resulting backlog of care” and that “the Bill addresses none of the problems the NHS is currently facing”.

In a press statement, the BMA highlights “many concerns” about the plans, many of them covered by openDemocracy, noting that it “fails to address chronic workforce shortages or to protect the NHS from further outsourcing and encroachment of large corporate companies in healthcare, and significantly dilutes public accountability”.

The BMA also says that “despite its title, the bill does nothing to address the serious failings in social care that needs urgent attention”.

“The Bill addresses none of the problems the NHS is currently facing,” David Wrigley, deputy chair of the BMA, said in the statement.

“This is not the right time to be making such widespread changes to our health service,” he added. “What’s more, the bill addresses none of the problems the NHS is currently facing – too few resources, too little funding, a crisis in social care and a huge shortage of staff.”

Wrigley also says the bill fails to take into account the “exhausted and depleted” workforce which is now battling another COVID wave.

“Healthcare workers have led from the front throughout this pandemic” but their concerns had not been addressed, he said, noting that the bill “undercut” clinical voices and raised the “threat of private health providers having a formal seat on new decision-making boards, and wielding influence over commissioning decisions”.

Instead, Wrigley has called for the government to think again and “make the NHS the default option for NHS contracts and to only tender competitively where this is not possible”.

He said this was “vital” in avoiding contracts “without scrutiny to private providers at huge expense to the taxpayer, as was seen with the procurement of PPE and Test and Trace during the pandemic”.

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