By Jeff Goulding – originally publised here:
This week Jeremy Corbyn stood at the dispatch box and accused the Prime Minister of being in denial over the state of the NHS. Her response was to trot out the usual diversions and weak gags that have typified her premiership.
However, when confronted with a quote from the British Red Cross, who in an unprecedented move had claimed the health service in England and Wales was facing a humanitarian crisis, she was more strident in her response. She accused the well respected charity of overblown and unjustifiable language. After all situations like the obliteration of Syria and people freezing to death in camps across Europe are more deserving of such an honorific, right Theresa?
In truth the Prime Minister doesn’t appear to want to do much about these situations either; proving if nothing else that simply labeling something a ‘humanitarian crisis’ won’t force this government into action, even if they agree with the description. It’s not just the Tories though who have raised eyebrows at this description. Many have questioned whether the problems faced by the National Health Service could fairly be talked of in such terms.
I find such debate troubling. The “if you think you’ve got it bad, you should see what life is like over there” line of reasoning has been used countless times and on many issues. It’s disguised as sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves, but beneath the mask is an attempt to get us to count our blessings, stop wining and be grateful for what we’ve got.
We’ve heard it all before. To the Hillsborough victims, “just accept it, it was a long time ago. You don’t hear the victims of the Bradford fire complaining.” To Public sector workers fighting for better conditions and safer railways, “what have you got to moan about, look at the conditions those working in the private sector have to endure. You don’t hear them moaning.”
Then there are the poverty denying politicians and commentators, who suggest that ‘true poverty’ only exists in the third world. To my mind they are simply arguing over questions of degree. However, so long as they can point to an extreme we haven’t reached yet, then the argument will always be “just accept what you’ve got. Things could be worse.”
Is it ever justifiable to ask people to accept conditions that are intolerable and threaten both quality and quantity of life, because somewhere else there’s a community who have it far worse? In my view absolutely not. The logical outcome of such a philosophy is surely a race to the bottom. As its stands this is a race Britain could be winning.
Is it not better to dream of a world that could be and fight to make it real? In doing so are you not driving up the standards for all?
Human beings should not have to beg for food or face a freezing death on unforgiving streets anywhere in the world. There is sufficient wealth and resources on the planet to feed and shelter everyone. Those who control the flow and distribution of capital and power may argue that local geopolitical factors, conflict and corruption exacerbate hunger and poverty in the third world. However, when it happens in their own cities it only serves to lay bare the rampant inequality their economic and political systems produce.
They hide behind the cover of scarcity, but it’s really about choices. Spend billions on weapons of war, or end hunger. Give away tax breaks to the 1% or fund healthcare. Politics is all about choices and the choices made by politicians tells us where their priorities lie.
So what of the problems highlighted in the National Health Service this week? Do they actually constitute a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Well since the question of definitions has come up, let’s examine one from a coalition of charities, including Oxfam and Save the Children.
“A humanitarian emergency arises when such an event affects vulnerable populations who are unable to withstand the negative consequences by themselves. “Vulnerability” refers to a reduced capacity of individuals or groups to resist and recover from life-threatening hazards, and is most often connected to poverty. That is, poor populations are more likely to be more vulnerable to man-made or natural disasters. Within affected communities, typically vulnerable groups include children, pregnant and nursing women, migrants, and displaced people.”
On that basis I would suggest that a humanitarian crisis exists not only in our health service, but on our streets and in our communities. It is undeniable that the poor, both in work and out of it, housed or living in shop doorways are struggling to recover from life threatening hazards. The problems they face arise not from natural circumstances, like floods or earthquakes. They are entirely man-made.
When it comes to hospitals, it is evident that services are struggling to cope and many have declared that they are unable to guarantee patient safety. The deaths of at least three patients in NHS hospitals have been attributed to the crisis, with one waiting 35 hours on a trolley for a bed. Meanwhile the Royal College of Nursing has declared that this is the worst state our healthcare system has found its self in, since its inception. Others like the Royal College of Physicians have added their voice to calls for government action.
It sounds like a humanitarian crisis to me, but does it really matter what we call it? A crisis by an other name is just as odious. Arguing over definitions feels like a cynical distraction. It smacks of defensiveness and will ultimately lead to politicians choosing inaction.
Surely a respected organisation, like the Red Cross, referring to our healthcare system in such terms, should give government serious pause for thought. Even if they do not see things in this way, do they not owe it to all of us to stop, take stock and review the path they are taking. Or do they believe the charity has been infiltrated by Trots and Anarchists?
The fact they are pressing ahead with their policies, steadfastly denying that anything is wrong, save for a few hospitals here or there, might lead most rationally minded people to conclude that, far from being in denial, Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt know exactly what they are doing. Could this be about the lowering of healthcare workers’ expectations, while undermining of the public’s faith in the service.
Jeremy Hunt recently spoke of having a honest conversation with public, as he attempted to blame patients for attending Accident and Emergency departments when they weren’t really sick. Theresa May has added that GPs should open for seven days to see all of these people. It seems the problems are everybody’s fault, but the governments.
Of course such arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. While its true that patients often attend the emergency department, when a walk-in centre, pharmacy or family doctor would be more appropriate, the Health Secretary’s attempt to attribute the current issues facing the service to this, is little more than extreme victim blaming.
After all patients sitting on trolleys in the corridors of hospitals have presumably been subject to triage and deemed worthy of admission. Their problems are therefore not likely to have been addressed by their GP in the first place.
This approach runs throughout Conservative social policy. The responsibility for poverty, homelessness and even health lies with individual choices. In their vision of society good things happen to good people, who strive and work hard. Therefore those who have been left behind must be lazy or weak. Supporting such individuals with anything more than the most basic of safety nets, only worsens their plight.
This is the ideology that lies behind cuts to disabled benefits, carried out under the guise of providing incentives to work. It is also the philosophy behind Tory policy on the National Health Service. It’s an ideology that argues that the state has no place providing comprehensive healthcare.
Following its creation, the NHS was regarded as one of the greatest social achievements of the 20th Century. Politicians of all persuasions, some of them grudgingly, would go on to accept a political consensus regarding the welfare state. It was believed to be a universal good. Now all that has gone and the whole edifice is in jeopardy. This is the real threat to you and your family.
Of course all this is entirely in keeping with Tory ideas about individual freedom. They argue that it is the responsibility of individuals to provide for themselves and their families. Those who can’t do that are framed as spongers and idlers who live off ‘hard working taxpayers’. There is no place for socialised medicine and a welfare state in that world view.
Such attitudes ignore the fact that welfare and universal healthcare is actually paid for by all of us. It is our subscription for living in a decent society. It is a price worth paying to not walk past homeless and destitute people in shop doorways, or hear about disabled people committing suicide because their benefits have been cut. It is an insurance policy for the whole nation against ever finding yourself in similar circumstances. It is not something for nothing.
Noam Chomsky famously said that the standard method of privatisation is to undermine public services to breaking point. When the public become angry, he said, you tell them we can no longer afford it and hand it over to private capital. In my view that’s exactly what’s happening today. Maybe that’s the “honest conversation” the Health Secretary was talking about.
As ever the views expressed here are entirely my own and not those of my employers.