Unison’s Christina McAnea on why nurses still need to speak out against the health bill
For nurses, healthcare is not only a professional issue, but also one of deep personal concern too. As both providers and consumers of care, making sure the NHS is able to deliver for all its patients must be a priority.
Changes of government, reorganisations, new policies, health budgets and job cuts have a direct impact on the daily lives of nurses and other healthcare staff. It’s no wonder that many are feeling under siege from all sides. Nurses are being forced to contend with government policy on pay, pensions, efficiency savings and job cuts.
In this context, the government’s Health and Social Care Bill presents new challenges to professionalism. Many patients are already feeling the effects of growing waiting lists, rationing and the developing postcode lottery for treatments, and it is nurses who are at the sharp end of patients’ frustrations.
And I hate to say it, but things are about to get a lot worse.
Nurses are rightly proud to work in a health service that is the envy of countries around the world. The founding principles of the NHS - based on need and not on ability to pay - is one that is worth fighting to preserve. Sadly, the health bill threatens to do away with it.
“The founding principles of the NHS - based on need and not on ability to pay - is one that is worth fighting to preserve”
Taking the limit off the number of private patients that a hospital can treat is enough to allow those people with the money to jump to the top of the queue. This means that NHS patients will not be treated on the basis of need, but will be left waiting even longer for their operations.
On a personal basis, the decision to remove the cap on private patients will lead to nursing staff and their families also being pushed to the end of the lengthening queues.
This move will also have consequences for patients whose conditions may have deteriorated significantly because they have been left waiting longer before being admitted to hospital. The long wait is often a false economy. Patients may need more time on the ward to recover or may take up a greater proportion of staff time because they have become significantly more debilitated, and in need of greater nursing care and attention.
At the same time, nurses are aware of the hard choices that are affecting their trusts. The government’s demand for £20bn in so-called efficiency savings is hitting every hospital. They experience first hand the job cuts, the unfilled posts, ward closures and the pay freeze hitting them and their colleagues hard.
So hospitals will be under a huge amount of extra pressure to increase their income from whatever source possible. Bringing in and treating more private patients under these circumstances may seem the lesser evil - unless you are the patient on the end of the list.
Unison is working hard to get that message across to the government, MPs, Lords, members, patients and the public. Despite the government’s listening exercise, significant dangers remain in the health bill and doing away with the private patient income cap is just one of them.
Nurses have a great deal of media-pulling power. Uniting to oppose the bill makes you a force to be reckoned with. Even the Conservatives baulk at the idea of being seen to upset nurses – so make your voices heard.
Christina McAnea is head of health at Unison.