Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Hospitals Fit for Heroes: What Happens When the Clapping Stops?

Workers should learn not to trust politicians. Avoid leaders is what socialists tell the working class. We suggest workers should think and act in their own class interest. And learn from history. When being described by capitalist politicians and media as "heroes", workers should always be wary that there is going to be a sting in the tail.

And the recent Coronavirus pandemic is no exception. Capitalist politicians will heap praise on workers or groups of workers if they want something from them. Once they have got what they want, workers will be dropped like hot cakes and forgotten.

Already Boris Johnson has said he is "surprised" by the few people returning to work. This was echoed by Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Tory Backbench Committee, while the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak believes the country has become addicted to furlough. Given that there is no antidote, no Covid 19 cure or vaccine; politicians want workers to die for profit. If they do not return to work, workers run the risk of being called cowards. Or worse: being barred from any state benefits to help them feed their families and to compensate for loss of pay, with possibly long-term unemployment as the economy sinks into deep economic depression, with many firms going bankrupt.

In wars, governments, Labour and Conservative, want workers be prepared to die for the interests of the capitalist class. During war they are described as "heroes". When workers return from war - those that hadn't been killed - they were told by politicians that workers and they and their families will get decent housing and a world class health service. In their dreams.

In the current pandemic, the government wants doctors, nurses and others to "pay the supreme sacrifice" by working under poor and inadequate conditions. Their death in service is evaluated at a paltry £60k: about a quarter of what the billionaire, Barclay brothers paid for Johnson's articles in the DAILY TELEGRAPH, a fee which he described as "chicken feed". These workers are often ill-equipped and not adequately tested to carry out their work safely.

The government's continued failure to supply hospitals and care homes with essential protective equipment - the masks, visors, gloves and gowns needed to protect nurses and carers against this highly infectious virus - makes the regular Downing Street briefings a meaningless charade, a cynical PR exercise. The war metaphor is used by politicians with tedious repetition. The coronavirus is "the enemy", we are told. The real enemy, however, is capitalism.

And the government's response to the pandemic is inept, callous and incompetent. They are not "led by the science" but by political expediency. Public Health England warned the government in 2016 that the UK could not cope with a pandemic. The government kept the Exercise Cygnus report secret. Nothing was done. Millions of vital pieces of personal protective equipment in the UK's pandemic stockpile - including almost 80 per cent of respirators - were out of date when coronavirus hit (SKY NEWS 8. 5. 2020). Thousands of doctors' protective gowns, for example, were purchased from Turkey, then flown thousands of miles by the RAF to the UK, only to be found to be unfit for purpose (GUARDIAN 7.5.2020).

It is quite clear that a capitalist government deals with pandemics in a different way than a future socialist society would. In socialism, what would be taken out of the consideration would be the profit motive, the need to cut costs and the Interest of businesses to trade. In capitalism the profit motive is the primary consideration not meeting human need.

The applause on Thursday evenings from other members of the working class is genuine - it is often directed towards their friends, and their family members who are working in unimaginably horrible conditions - but from the politicians standing outside No 10, in front of media camera, applause rings hollow.

Homes Fit for Heroes?

Before it was health workers, "heroes" were the soldiers returning after the end of the First World War A war opposed by socialists on grounds of class and class interest. Workers have no interest in fighting in the employers' wars. Workers have no country. They have nothing to die for.

In 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George gave a speech in which he promised "to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in." He promised, "Homes fit for heroes".

Parliament passed the ambitious Housing Act 1919 which promised government subsidies to help finance the construction of Council 500,000 council houses within three years. In 1919 the Housing and Town Planning Act was enacted to build at least 600,000 houses. The early council houses looked to the designs of Edwin Lutyens and the Arts and Crafts Movement. But politicians' promises like piecrust are easily broken, and only 200,000 were ever built. By 1921 the economy was hit by a trade slump and unemployment rose to 10 per cent.

Faced with an economic crisis and trade depression the government set in train austerity measures. Following recommendations of government cuts from a Committee under Sir Eric Geddes to examine public expenditure, funding for council housing programmes was cut and the Act of 1919 was rescinded.

Despite an urgent need for housing, building materials were stock-piled and construction workers were laid off. The last council houses to be built were mean, utilitarian and badly constructed. "Homes fit for Heroes" was quietly forgotten.

After the second bloodbath, World War Two, there was a massive effort by the government, both Labour and Tory, to build a lot of new council housing, especially to replace city housing destroyed by bombing or for slum clearance. While some of these new estates were of reasonable quality, most were likely to become the slums of the future. In London and other cities, high-rise blocks of flats went up, with poor insulation and lifts often breaking down. These "sink-estates" which Local Authorities could not maintain adequately, were largely taken over by Housing Associations driven by cost and profit, then refurbished with highly inflammable cosmetic cladding: and the Grenfell fire and others on a smaller scale were the predictable result.

Now, over 100 years after Lloyd George's promise in 1918, there still is a housing crisis.

Health Service Fit for Heroes?

The National Health Service was set-up to replace the inefficiencies of previous health provision for the working class exposed by the Blitz and the large number of casualties. The National Health Act of 1946 was designed to create universal health care.

Financial problems have beset the NHS from the start. New hospitals and health centres could not be built because there was no money to build them.

And competing government priorities always take precedence. In 1950 when Britain became involved in the Korean War, under a Labour government, more money was needed for the conflict. In April 1950, Hugh Gaitskell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in his Budget that prescription charges would be made on NHS dental treatment and spectacles. War and conflict first, health second.

The NHS is a history of cost- cutting by all governments. In 1976, the minority Labour UK government of James Callaghan was forced to borrow $3.9 billion from the IMF to stabilise the value of pound. The loan was accompanied with conditions to cut public spending, including spending on the NHS.

The Labour Government under Tony Blair saddled the NHS with debt through its Private Finance Initiative. That was simply a dodge to move public sector spending off the balance sheet but the new hospitals built under PFI were then saddled with contracts, meaning a huge financial burden of debt which could take decades to repay.

The Labour government carried on introducing market reforms and privatisation. Doctors and nurses and other NHS staff were treated with contempt. In 1999 'New Labour' marked the start of a transition of the NHS from a public sector provider to include the private sector under the disguise of choice and competition. Market structures, foundation trusts, GP consortia and the introduction of private corporations into commissioning were all products of the Labour attempt to drive down the cost of the National Heath Service to the capitalist class. These so-called reforms were continued by the Cameron and May governments both with and without the support of the Liberal Democrats.

Following the economic crisis of 2008, the Tory government imposed a decade of austerity measures which led to junior doctors striking in 2016 over a proposed new contract which resulted in many doctors subsequently leaving the NHS. It was the first strike by doctors in the NHS for forty years. The Tory government proposed new contracts for junior doctors which would scrap overtime rates for work between 7am and 10pm on every day except Sunday. The union argued that the contract would include an increase in working hours with a relative pay cut of up to 40%. The Prime Minister did not come out of No 10 to clap the striking doctors. Nor did they get praise and support from the media.

During the period of austerity, nurses also suffered a 14 per cent pay cut in real terms because of a government cap on public sector pay as part the austerity programme following the economic crisis of 2006. The formal pay cap of 1 per cent was introduced in 2015. There was no support for the nurses' strike action in the media.

When the Clapping Stops

What happens when the clapping stops? Attacks in the media against immigrant care workers, nurses and doctors will be resumed. The media will begin a campaign against "greedy" doctors and nurses for wanting higher pay and better working conditions.

And people will be asking: where are all those hospitals? Where are all those nurses? We were promised 30 new hospitals and 30,000 new nurses. As in 1921 governments will say that for the good of capitalism there will have to be cuts and austerity.

There will be no NHS "Fit for Heroes".

The Socialist Alternative to Capitalism

When the clapping stops it will be back to a Cinderella sweatshop National Health Service, run on the cheap and at the lowest costs the government can get away with. The subsequent economic depression, forecast to be worse than the depression of the 1930s, will force cuts and closures just as it did in the 1920s and 1970s, and after the last economic crisis in 2006. The high death rate in the "care homes" - the largely privatised sector of the NHS, saddled with the long-term care of the old and infirm - will soon be conveniently forgotten as the state of the economy makes lean and aggressive competition for business on the world market the top government priority.

This does not have to be the case. When the clapping stops and the politicians have disappeared from view to their clubs and country homes, their hedge funds and offshore tax havens, workers should turn their attention towards an alternative to capitalism. They should consider the establishment of socialism in which there is common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society - a social system where health services will be prioritised, not delayed or denied with questions about how these can be paid for.

Without the priorities of profit-making and capital accumulation, without the dead-weight of the capitalist class and its government, society will be able to provide the best possible health care for everyone. There will be no two-tier system of private and public health. Pandemics will be adequately planned for, there will be sufficient capacity to cope with emergencies, and health workers will be provided with the necessary equipment to carry out their work safely. And there would be free access based on the, common sense, socialist principle: "from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs".

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