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Why GPs are leaving the NHS

For the last few years the medical profession have been the main opposition to NHS privatisation - b

Last summer, after nearly a decade of training, Dr Jayne Graham qualified as a GP. She's spent the last three years at an NHS practice in a deprived part of South London, and had planned to stay there. Today, however, she's working for a private clinic in affluent Kent.

Dr Graham - not her real name - hasn't joined the dark side because of some damascene conversion to the superiority of private medicine. Instead, like hundreds of her colleagues, she simply found that the NHS didn’t have enough jobs to go round.

"This isn't at all why I wanted to be a GP, but I’ve got to pay my mortgage," she says. "I believe patients should be treated based on need. But I’m giving out private treatment because I have no other option."

She's not alone. Nationwide, the number of advertised vacancies for GPs has dropped by as much as 70 per cent in the last year. The BMA estimates that 1,000 of this year's crop of graduates – around a third - will struggle to find work.

As a result, young doctors are grabbing any work that's going. Some are working part-time; others as locums, doing the medical equivalent of temping. At least one is driving a London taxi. Others still, with £60k of debt and a quarter of a million pounds worth of training behind them, are doing precisely nothing.

The most worrying contingent, though, are those like Dr Graham who have left the NHS altogether. Several of her colleagues have already made the move ("Where else are they going to go?" she asks, pointedly).

Plenty more are considering it. In 2006, a survey by medical newspaper GP found that less than a third of young doctors would work in the private sector. Last July, when it repeated the exercise, that number was more than half. One of the younger BMA reps says that many of her colleagues are setting up private pensions, "because they don't think the NHS is even going to be their main employer any more."

Comments like this may surprise those who still tremble with rage over six figure pay packets for doctors.

In fact, those are a big part of the problem. The contract that created them works on the basis that the partners in each GP practice split its profits. This, it turns out, is a big incentive not to bring in any more partners. The GPs, of course, place the blame squarely on the government’s refusal to increase funding for the last three years, in an attempt to claw back the embarrassingly huge pay rise of 2004.

But while the BMA and the government have been busy blaming each other, the private sector’s been cashing in. For the last few years the medical profession have been the main opposition to NHS privatisation, leaving business to grumble about medical protectionism. Now, though, companies are scheming to bring doctors on board with cushy pay and conditions. US giant UnitedHealth Europe is offering terms so generous they get praised to the heavens at conferences. Virgin Healthcare is going one better, allowing GPs to keep their NHS status, but co-opting them to the Branson brand so that it can flog private health and dental services to those with spare cash and no patience.

The doomsday scenario here is that general practice could go the way of dentistry, where it’s now all but impossible to get NHS treatment in some parts of the country. Dr Alex Smallwood, who represents GP trainees at the BMA, warns that, if the situation isn’t resolved soon, we’ll "hit a bubble down the line when GPs have all gone private, and there aren't enough to staff the NHS."

That’s unlikely. What’s more probable is that one of the last barriers to the commercialisation of the NHS will start to break down. The more GPs who take private jobs, and discover they aren’t so bad, the more likely the profession will be to rethink its stance on private healthcare.

It's unclear how to solve this mess. The BMA, which has spent much of the last year denying there's a problem, now says it's working on proposals to encourage practices to create jobs. But while its head GP, Dr Laurence Buckman, admits it’s "a very dangerous situation," he adds, "We can't take any concrete steps because GPs are independent contractors". Meanwhile the government gets what it wanted all along: a more competitive NHS, and a way of putting downward pressure on GP salaries.

Whatever happens, things will likely get worse before they get better: the number of GPs being trained up is increasing by 400 next year. Dr Graham won’t be the last doctor who goes private.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times