Mid-Staffordshire scandal - the price of a decade of cost-cutting

Workers' Fight workplace bulletin editorials
19 February 2013

The scandal surrounding NHS hospitals is escalating. After it was revealed that in 2006-09, 400 to 1,200 patients may have died due to poor care at Stafford hospital, five other NHS Trusts have now been found to have had unusually high death rates between 2010 and 2012, with up to 3,000 more deaths than would normally be expected. At least another eight Trusts have been added to this list, for similar reasons, bringing the total to 14 now under investigation - and others may follow.

But what do politicians have to say about these horrendous stories of patients being wrongly diagnosed and sent home to die, while others are left unwashed in their beds, or without the food, medicines or pain killers they are meant to take? Of course they are all duly appalled - they would be! But they also all deny any responsibility for this catastrophic deterioration of the NHS - as if all three main parties hadn't contributed to driving healthcare down the drain over the past decade!

Years of cover-up

Indeed, this deterioration has been going on for years. As early as 2006, the findings of an internal report over the situation at Stafford hospital were swept under the carpet. At the time, Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust's managers wanted to achieve the Foundation Trust status introduced by Labour in 2002. The last thing they needed was bad publicity. And now it has been revealed that one - if not the - main cause of Stafford hospital's appalling record was precisely the cost-cutting drive carried out by its managers. Just in order to show a pristine financial balance-sheet and achieve this much-coveted Foundation status - which, indeed, they finally won in 2008!

Subsequently, no less than four other reports and independent enquiries over the Stafford hospital case were commissioned. But most of their findings were kept secret. After the last of these reports was completed, in February 2010, Labour still refused to allow a public enquiry to take place, no doubt for fear of exposing the catastrophic results of its policies in the run-up to the general election that year.

Finally, once in power after the May 2010 election, the Con-Dems did order a public enquiry. But this was only because they intended to use its findings to blame the present and future dire state of the NHS on the past Labour governments' policies, like so many other things. Because, at the same time, Cameron's ministers proceeded to pursue exactly the same policies in the NHS - aggravated by their particular kind of privatisation and their own austerity measures.

Politicians are the real criminals

This is the report which has finally seen the light of day this month, providing such a damning indictment of policies primarily driven by savings, rather than patients' needs. It denounces the lack of doctors and nurses, the failure to train the 800,000 low-paid, healthcare assistants who do much of the work and the fact that staff are just overworked and overstretched. Finally, it exposes the bureaucratic galaxy of so-called NHS "watchdogs" and "regulators", which are blind to patients' needs and only concerned with "regulating" savings.

Politicians' reactions to this report would be laughable, if they weren't so cynical. Take Andy Burnham, Gordon Brown's last Health Secretary. He writes in the Guardian: "There has been a drive to import a commercial mentality into the NHS, which has given rise to a new managerialism and a focus on finance and targets. This approach may be well suited to retail, but there are limits to how far it can be applied to healthcare." Indeed, but wasn't it under Labour - and under Burnham - that this commercial drive was speeded up to produce monstrous situations like that at Stafford hospital? Or is Burnham having a fit of amnesia?

As to the ConDems, they are so predictably hypocritical! Cameron immediately called for criminal charges to be brought against NHS employees guilty of providing or covering up harmful care, while announcing plans to link nurses' pay to their "care performance" - whatever this may mean! Of course, he would blame those who get the work done - not those who sabotage it!

But aren't the real criminals the governments, Labour and ConDems, who have been starving the NHS of funds, turning its facilities into quasi-commercial outfits, complete with their armies of lawyers and fat-cat managers, whose only aim is to cut costs? And shouldn't today's government be first to stand trial for slashing 100 NHS jobs per week, forcing ward after ward to close down and offering even more ways for private profiteers to exercise their parasitism on the NHS budget?