Doug Marr: The NHS is more threatened by right-wing ideology than it is by Covid

A 2018 YouGov survey suggested the NHS is the second most highly thought of British institution (just behind the fire service). The results were in line with earlier Health Foundation research showing 88% of us believe the NHS/health care should be prioritised over all other areas of public spending.

The same percentage believe the NHS should continue to be tax funded and free at the point of use. Indeed, 64% thought taxes should be increased to protect the service, although it was not clear who should be paying more.

Nevertheless, the NHS has never enjoyed total support, especially amongst economic neoliberals. In the early 1990s for example, former Chancellor Nigel Lawson bemoaned the fact that the NHS had become “an English (sic) religion”, making it a no-go area for market forces. Fellow right wingers weighed in, targeting the nation’s “soppy” attachment to a socialist totem that is expensive, ineffective and in comparison, with other countries, delivers relatively poor patient outcomes.

As long ago as 2014, The Commonwealth Fund although generally positive about the NHS, criticised “its poor record on keeping people alive”. The NHS, particularly in England, is currently threatened on two fronts.

The pandemic has stretched its resources almost to breaking point. Over the past two years there have been times when it seemed on the point of collapse. The knock-on effects will be felt for years to come.

The most obvious symptom being experienced by NHS Scotland is growing waiting lists and missed targets, most significantly the 12-week target for the start of cancer treatments. The Scottish Government has been criticised for attempting to address increased waiting lists and times by putting a wide range of treatments out to tender; £150 million spread over five years has been set aside for the purpose.

As always, the Scottish Government is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. It’s roundly condemned for growing waiting lists, but accused of privatisation by stealth if action is taken to relieve patient suffering and lessen pressure on the NHS. At a personal level, my wife recently had surgery at The Jubilee in Clydebank and was mighty grateful for her treatment, irrespective of how it was paid for.

There is however, a more potent and insidious threat to the NHS. The impact of Covid has emboldened right wing crazies. Last year, Critic magazine ran a piece entitled, “Who do we think we’re kidding with the NHS?” The author argued, “It is debatable whether the NHS is the best healthcare system in Britain. Believing it to be the best in the world requires a uniquely blind form of patriotism.”

Another writer described the weekly applause for the NHS as similar to the orchestrated demonstrations of support in North Korea. Critic magazine is a platform for ahem, eccentrics such as David Starkey, Toby Young and Peter Hitchens but nevertheless, its assault on the NHS is more than a straw in the wind.

At Westminster the dafties of the Brexit Research Group and Covid Recovery Group are firmly in the driving seat. It’s probable Mr Johnson’s successor will share many of their delusions. They have no moral or emotional commitment to the NHS and see it simply as a source of rich pickings for the similar minded.

Private Eye magazine revealed the NHS has already paid out a staggering £2.15bn to private healthcare companies to ensure hospital capacity. It is surely immoral that while the NHS struggles for funding, astronomic sums are siphoned into the pockets of private shareholders. Having tasted blood, it’s unlikely the predators will back off now.

Brexit, Covid and the Conservative drift to the right means the NHS on both sides of the border has never been more at risk. The recent eye-watering profits made by private medicine and PPE suppliers will encourage further advance and encroachment in the months and years ahead. Unless the Scottish Government and opposition parties get together, the most likely outcome is the NHS becomes a safety net for those unable to afford private care.

More positively, there is still huge popular support for the NHS. It could well prove to be the battlefield on which the neoliberal advance is halted.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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