The NHS is at its first major turning point in its relatively short history. Extraordinarily poor judgement from consecutive governments has allowed one of the key pillars of our civilised society to begin to crumble at its foundations. Our overcrowded and understaffed health service bears the weight of an ageing population crisis, an obesity/alcoholism endemic and, now, the public backlash from yet another outrageous strike by junior doctors.
For five consecutive days next month, the NHS will not only be fighting to keep their patients alive in the absence of over 37,000 doctors, but it will be fighting to keep itself alive. Those who advocate a private system of healthcare (usually highly deluded pseudo-conservatives who have abdicated their responsibility to ‘conserve’ anything) will no doubt use this strike as a platform from which to launch their campaign to bring healthcare into private hands.
And while this doesn’t automatically mean that ‘we’ll end up like America’, as is so often suggested, it does mean that a society that once decided that we should protect everyone from premature death regardless of their bank balance will have been lost.
I am not by any means a devotee of the Church Of The National Health Service – the new religion of the dogmatic left, whose flock often congregate in the audience of BBC Question Time and preach that the NHS is the cure to all of our ills. But I am a pragmatist. The NHS must be funded, and to that extent, controlled, by the people it serves. Free market solutions, of which I am generally in favour, simply cannot be allowed into the public healthcare system.
The reason is simple: unlike any other private enterprise, in a private healthcare system, death is good for business. Insurance companies have a huge incentive to do as little as possible to prevent their customers from dying prematurely. As physician Marcia Angell put it “a bakery’s ideal customer is one who likes their bread, and so buys their bread every week for as long as possible. An insurance company’s ideal customer is one who likes their insurance package, buys it, then gets terminal lung cancer.”
So what does the junior doctor’s strike have to do with privatisation creeping into the NHS? Well, the divisions that were exposed in the EU Referendum on immigration showed that we are a country of extremely opinionated people, whose opinions are highly susceptible to the lure of political theatre. But our opinions are of course not limited to the subject of immigration. I strongly suspect that the next political divide that occurs in this country will be whether or not to preserve the NHS as a publicly funded healthcare system.
In 2015, junior doctors did considerable damage to those wishing to preserve the National Health Service. At a time where many ordinary people were struggling to even find a job they could apply to, junior doctors refused to do the well paid job they’d be guaranteed since the age of 18 (a huge bonus in itself) over a relatively minor change. This stoked up a scarcely reported backlash against junior doctors by sections of society not represented in the Twittersphere and should have served as a warning that the silent majority of the public were not buying their narrative. Alas, it did not.
Next month, junior doctors are taking this squabble nuclear and wilfully putting thousands more lives at risk to obtain more from the feather-light public purse in return for less. Over 100,000 surgeries, some life saving, will be delayed, along with cancer care which will be significantly limited and delayed for weeks following the strike.
Can you think of anything that would bring more glee to privatisers than this piece of free propaganda? It seems to me that junior doctors have found themselves in a political dogfight, but are too naive and ill-equipped to fight it on level terms. Tube drivers made the same mistake in challenging the Boris Johnson administration via strike action and are now universally despised by the general public, as well as being left empty-handed.
Jeremy Hunt will expertly guide the bulk of the media narrative toward his position and junior doctors will ultimately be left with less integrity, and probably find that their contracts change anyway. Then, once normality has resumed, the extreme and irresponsible behaviour of junior doctors in this episode will be dragged out as a political weapon in every debate that follows on the future of the NHS.
So this absurdly long and no doubt deadly strike by junior doctors next month is a disgrace not just because of its disregard for human life, but because of its disregard for the grave danger the NHS is currently in.