There are not many countries that would choose to celebrate their public health system in an Olympic opening ceremony – but we did, showing the special status of “our” National Health Service. People from all walks of life feel ownership of the NHS and have a particular affection for it – indeed politicians from Gordon Brown to David Cameron have professed to “love” the NHS.
Aneurin Bevan once remarked, “The NHS will last as long as there are folks left with faith to fight for it”. Today it celebrates its 70th birthday, an incredible achievement. Built on the premise that a civilised society does not deny medical help on the basis of a lack of means to pay, Britain’s system of free health care has survived seven tumultuous decades of history.
Yet today it is under threat once again. Of course, the extra birthday cash injection by the Government is welcome, but this does not undo years of underfunding. When Labour left power there were record levels of patient satisfaction in the NHS, today winter crises are now the norm even in the height of summer.
I also fear with Brexit on the horizon, our health service is feeling the pressure. Only last weekend NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens warned “extensive planning” is taking place within Government to ensure the National Health Service does not run out of medicines and equipment in a cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit scenario.
It is all a far cry from when the Brexiteers told the British public a big fat lie and stuck it on the side of a bus. There is no ‘Brexit dividend’, and with the European Medicines Agency having to relocate because of our departure from the EU we will also lose out on cutting edge new research, which was once being conducted right here in the UK.
But the problems do not stop there. Under a Tory Brexit, we risk continued uncertainty for the 144,000 EU nationals working in health and social care and the privatisation of parts of the NHS as the price for future trade deals.
Possible NHS privatisation was one of the reasons why in the European Parliament I opposed the trade deal with Canada (CETA) and why the Labour Party has a policy of protecting the NHS from any new private involvement when we sign trade deals after Brexit. We will not allow the corporate vultures to cherry-pick parts of the NHS where a quick profit can be found.
With Donald Trump’s visit to the UK now imminent, Tory Brexiteers are ready to roll out the red carpet for him in the hope that this will facilitate a trade deal between our two countries. But we know what both the Americans and hard right Tory MPs want, they want fewer regulations and more private involvement in our health service – to privatise it through the back door. This would be disastrous and we cannot allow this to happen.
This weekend I will be celebrating with many others, the work of our hard working doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals in our NHS. I’m looking forward to it. One thing I have learned over the years is everyone is happy to come and talk at an NHS street stall.
It always sticks in my mind, that when I first became an MEP and had to go through all the paperwork, one of the questions an official asked me, was “Do you have medical insurance?” To most Europeans, it is a perfectly normal question, to me it felt like a political slight, “of course not”, I replied “we have the NHS.” I hope future generations will be able to reply that too. So here’s to the next 70 years. Happy Birthday NHS.