The Left has suddenly forgotten its hatred of the private sector in healthcare



For years, the Left has been shrieking about the privatisation of the NHS, despite only a tiny 7.3 per cent of NHS spending going to the private sector. They always gloss over the fact that the Blair and Brown governments introduced private providers to increase patient choice and competition as part of their reform programme, as it doesn’t fit the narrative of the Tories driving privatisation.

John McDonnell committed Labour to ‘eradicating all traces of privatisation from the service’ during the 2019 general election and it is a maxim on the Left that involvement of the private sector in the provision of healthcare is immoral. For someone to make a profit from another’s suffering can never be allowed, goes the saying. All benefits associated with the private sector – entrepreneurship, invention, cost control, agility, adaptiveness – are ignored.

If we were to take this at face value and Mr McDonnell were to have implemented his plan for the NHS, how far would it have gone? The NHS buys vast numbers of computers and software from private sector manufacturers. Would it have set up its own computer production factories and software development houses to rival Microsoft and Oracle? The NHS also buys huge quantities of food. Presumably, it would need its own farms and logistics networks under the ‘no trace of the private sector’ model. The list goes on and it rapidly becomes apparent that the NHS simply would not be able to function without the private sector.

The Left also frequently conflates the NHS with the healthcare sector overall. This ignores the UK’s 548 private hospitals and between 500 and 600 private clinics, which include the vast majority of GPs, dentist surgeries, pharmacies and care homes, not to mention the vast array of social care providers. All of these rely on a network of private sector manufacturers, suppliers and service providers to function.

As the Coronavirus pandemic hit, the NHS swung into action and scaled up its capacity to treat patients impressively, with the new Nightingale Hospital in London a shining example.

But, it has rapidly become clear that the other major requirements to deal with the pandemic are threefold – ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing kits. As the government put out the call for a major national effort to produce these items, the private sector swung into action. Consortia were rapidly formed between big names like Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Dyson, along with smaller businesses which had particular expertise and could rapidly prototype and turn their production lines to these items. Private hospitals and clinics turned over their full capacity to the use of the NHS. Boots provided its staff to carry out tests of NHS clinicians and social workers. Of course, the cheapest and easiest thing for all of these firms to have done would have been to shut up shop, minimise costs and wait for the return to business-as-usual. But, they didn’t. They have done the right thing and committed themselves to this national project of which we are now all a part.

And what does the Left have to say about this? Nothing. Commentators and the perpetual prophets of NHS privatisation suddenly don’t seem to have a problem with the private sector’s contribution to healthcare. The Guardian covers in great detail the progress of these firms as they complete designs, gain regulatory approval to begin production and begin delivering this kit. Labour MPs encourage firms in their constituencies to put themselves and their production facilities forward. How quickly they all seem to have lost their aversion to the involvement of the private sector in healthcare!

Perhaps, it is only acceptable in a time of crisis? Once this is all over, they will no doubt all go back to calling out private sector involvement as a great evil, forgetting the essential contribution these firms have made, without which thousands would have died.

There will always be a debate about how much healthcare provision should be provided by the state vs. the private sector. But, perhaps this crisis will remind us that the private sector has a strong, necessary and important role to play in healthcare in the UK and always will. The ideological zealots of the Left who seek to drive it out because they hate capitalism will ultimately achieve only one thing – worse healthcare for us all. They should remember that when things eventually return to normal.

Lewis Feilder is on the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidates’ list and works as a management consultant in London. Follow him on twitter: @LewisFeilder