"The NHS is being hollowed out from within; that's not efficiency." Photo: Getty
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NHS reform and the hollow marketisation myth

A metamorphosis is taking place; a mutation of the NHS from a public service into a lucrative marketplace.

When the chief executive of NHS England produces a 39-page, 15,000-word rescue plan for the health service that, a senior doctor later told me, “doesn’t even mention the real problem in the system”, you know something is up.

Not that it’s any great surprise. Simon Stevens isn’t likely to agree with my source that the real problem in the NHS is a prevailing ideological dogma that “private is good and public is bad” among top brass, nor that the aggressive marketisation programme currently underway is all based on a myth. The private healthcare man turned NHS-saviour has only been in his post for seven months after 10 years at global giant United Health Group, and old habits die hard.

But the real paradox at the heart of Stevens’ five-year plan is that he calls for ruthless efficiencies and then turns a blind eye to the sort of “grotesque financial waste” that consultant clinical oncologist and National Health Action Party (NHAP) co-leader Clive Peedell says is crippling the system.

Peedell says: “Wasteful internal markets, commissioning support units, management consultancy fees, the cost of procurement of clinical services, profit-taking by private providers, the cost of fragmenting pathways due to outsourcing components to private contractors, and PFI deals bankrupting our hospitals; they are draining billions from frontline care in our NHS”.

A metamorphosis is taking place; a mutation of the NHS from a public service into a lucrative marketplace. None of this is particularly new – but since the Health and Social Care Act kicked in two years ago, trusts have been legally obliged to compete with private providers over contracts, and take on the extra administrative costs of doing so. Allyson Pollock, professor of public health research at Queen Mary University of London, says: “It’s quite clear that the government wants to contract out as much as it can before the general election, but there’s no data about the costs for trusts such as lawyers and management consultants in doing this”.

And after a slow start, the scrum has really kicked in now. Campaign group NHS Support Federation has recorded five times more contracts coming onto the market between July and September this year, a cool £2bn’s worth, than in the first three months of life under the Health and Social Care Act when only £266m was up for grabs. Bound by competition laws, NHS trusts find themselves in the position of having to spend tens, maybe hundreds of thousands bidding to carry on running services they already deliver, or, even worse, to then lose out to private providers that have cherry-picked the contracts and put all of their corporate weight behind winning them.

Take Cambridgeshire and Peterborough for example, where a million pounds of taxpayer money was wasted on the procurement process of older people’s healthcare and adult community health services before the CCG finally decided that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust should carry on running the service.

Why are such tremendous burdens being overlooked by Stevens? Or the hideous levels repayments for the same PFI loans he advocated when he had Tony Blair’s ear back in the noughties? Why no mention of the £4.5bn a year that Calum Paton, Professor of Public Policy at Keele University, conservatively estimates is the cost of administering an internal market he describes as “costly and of dubious effectiveness”, or the extortionate legal fees just being in that market forces trusts to stump up?

GP and anti-privatisation campaigner Dr Bob Gill says: “A market doesn’t work in healthcare; the administration of it just drives up costs. The NHS is being hollowed out from within, assisted by people from banking and the private sector who are dumbing down the service and delivering everything as cheaply as possible. That’s not efficiency”.

Neither is, Gill argues, a system in which a hollowed-out NHS has to pay when those private companies fail in their duty. Private companies like Vanguard Healthcare, which had its contract with Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton terminated after a series of post-surgery complications, leaving Musgrove medical director Dr Colin Close admitting, “any financial responsibility would rest with us”.

How is all this playing out? Kathryn Anderson is a nurse at the Royal Free Hospital and NHAP general election candidate – in Iain Duncan Smith’s constituency. She says that far from bringing in greater efficiency or care, these new wasteful costs are having the opposite effect in the wards. “All that money comes from the frontline,” she says. “It comes from nurses and HCAs and doctors’ pay, and from drugs that don’t get purchased. You can’t run the NHS and expect it to perform if you flush the money out of the system, it just doesn’t work. We see this every day and it’s getting worse”.

The Conservatives are keeping very quiet about all this, perhaps wisely. With one hand Lansley and Hunt have enforced pay freezes on frontline staff claiming the pot is empty, and with the other, enforced an extortionate tendering process that has wasted vital funds. Just the cost of the top-down reorganisation alone, which a senior Tory MP recently described as the party’s “biggest mistake” in government, is estimated at £3bn.

On the pretext that the NHS is an egregious waste of public money – despite the fact that in 2012 the UK spent less on healthcare as a percentage of GDP than any other G7 country – the system has been altered from within. The result is a conduit to a £100bn-a-year pot with an NHS stamp on the side, which through some alchemy turns taxpayer money into private profits.

Stevens’ five-year plan is full of hope and some entirely sensible ideas to improve the system. But with no mention of any of the debilitating costs of running the new marketised system, which Unite head of health Rachael Maskell says could be as high as £1bn by the time of the election, nor the outcry from the profession about marketisation which the BMA itself is campaigning to see reversed in law, it seems a little hollow to say the least.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.