Resilient parasites? Privateers to ‘exploit’ NHS ‘brand’ abroad

I have to confess a grudging admiration for the NHS privateers this morning. Not in a positive way, of course. More like the kind of admiration you feel for the way a parasite is perfectly engineered to suck the life from its host and to resist the drugs and antibodies that might be used to try to get rid of it. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s anything but a parasite, or that you want to do anything but eradicate it because of its deadly effect, but you can be impressed by its resilience.

That grudging admiration comes from the way in which the privateers are trying to turn an indisputable negative into a lucrative positive. A few weeks ago, Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony rightly celebrated the achievement that the NHS represents, while pointing a very subversive finger at the Tories’ handling of it by setting it in a context of other things that made Britain great and are now no more. It inspired a great upswell of national pride and affection for the NHS, which must have been as bitter as gall to redundant Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, David Cameron and to their corporate paymasters.

I woke this morning to the news that the government is aiming to ‘exploit’ the NHS ‘brand’ by encouraging UK NHS Trusts to build hospitals and offer services abroad under the NHS banner, and is claiming that Boyle’s NHS segment was nothing but a big advert to the watching world to ‘buy the brand‘. It’s hideous, but inventive.

It’s also ridiculous. Any push overseas will inevitably divide attention and resources that should be focused on providing healthcare here. Moreover, the NHS is not a ‘brand’, it’s a public service. Cheerios or KitKat are brands, and belong to whichever private company invents them or buys them. However much the government is trying to treat ‘NHS’ as a brand by selling it off and licensing its use to private companies for them to profit from it, British people are generally not stupid enough to fall for its commercialisation – if they realise it’s happening.

And there’s the silver lining to this particular cloud. Sticking with the parasite analogy – oh how appropriate it is! – parasites can live quietly in a host for a long time without anyone knowing they’re there. But when they start to ‘make their move’ – to do what they do and spread throughout the host – a point is reached where the host starts to feel ill. the parasite moves from being covert to overt. And then, if treatment is available and the host has the sense to look for it, he/she can fight back.

I’ve had malaria, which is caused by a parasite you catch from a mosquito bite. I’ve travelled a lot in Africa, and while I’ve used anti-malarial drugs, they’re not a complete guarantee. I had been travelling in Ghana, then went to a non-malarial part of South Africa. But it was only on the night I arrived back in England that the symptoms hit.

You see, the incubation period of the malaria parasite is typically about 10 days. You become infected with it, but for 10 days it lives quietly, gradually building to the point where you actually feel ill. I had malaria for 10 days before I became aware of it.

But fortunately, once the symptoms kicked in, I recognised what they meant. The anti-malarial drug I use also functions as a cure if you up the dose by a factor of 4 over a period of 3 days. When the shivering, sweating, aching and weakness kicked in, the parasite ‘came out of the closet’ – and I took the meds and killed it. In doing what it couldn’t help doing, it brought about its own end.

That’s the silver lining of this particular cloud, and in a couple of ways. Firstly, the NHS Confederation has come out of the closet about its profit-making aims. This confederation, which claims to be ‘the only body to bring together and speak on behalf of the whole of the NHS‘, has long provided cover for, and been unduly influenced by, a number of pro-privatisation groups and corporate interests, including the ‘NHS Partners Network’, which has been revealed to have orchestrated press coverage in favour of Andrew Lansley’s despicable ‘Health & Social Care Act’ that has opened the door to rampant privatisation of NHS services.

But this morning, we have David Stout, the Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, all over the news talking about setting up profitable hospitals and the need for the NHS to ‘improve productivity’ (David, the NHS is already the 2nd most efficient health service in the developed world, so there’s not much higher to go!). The Confederation’s – or at least its leadership’s – true colours are showing. Stout and his confederates are outing themselves, even if they’re trying to dress it up as good for the NHS and good for us.

Secondly, the government and its sponsors in private healthcare, are bringing their actions far more clearly into the public eye. I’ve written extensively about how the government has been working hard to minimise public awareness of the damage being done by its NHS Act, using its friends in the right-wing press to divert attention and demonise the NHS every time a new ‘push’ is about to be launched and even going to the extent of blackmailing the BBC, via its funding, to keep quiet about the NHS and other key issues.

But today, the NHS and the profit motive are all over the news media. While there’s a definite bias in terms of the time given to Stout and others to defend the move, quotes from Labour shadow ministers and patient groups are getting airtime, and the public consciousness is being stirred to consider whether we really want the NHS to become just another brand.

Just like the malaria parasite couldn’t help bringing itself to my attention and risking me killing it, the privatisation-lovers can’t help this. The malaria parasite was doing what it does. The people trying to privatise the NHS are doing what they do – greedily following every possible avenue for profit.

Trying to turn their Olympic ceremony embarrassment into an opportunity has a certain cleverness to it. But if they were really clever, they’d wait until their takeover of the NHS was complete before chasing expansion abroad. But greed is too deeply embedded in their DNA and they just can’t help themselves. In taking this mis-step, they’ve exposed themselves to the public awareness, undoing a lot of hard and nefarious work to lull the British people into sleeping through the robbery.

For anti-privatisation campaigners, this represents an opportunity. We need to shout even louder about what’s going on in this country and how the latest news exposes this government’s real feelings and intentions for the real NHS. Not the ‘brand’, but the reality of provision of healthcare free at the point of need – wonderful for all its flaws – and the reality of the government’s cold-hearted, ideological desire to dismantle it.

Let’s not miss the opportunity. Whether you protest, write, bombard ministers and your local health trust with FOI requests, or just tell your friends over a beer – use this awareness that the privateers have foolishly (for their purposes) created to create awareness of what’s being done at home by the same people. And just maybe, we can accelerate the exposure and defeat of the people responsible – we can kill the parasite before it kills us, the host.

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