Opponents of free universal healthcare hope the current crisis will open the door to killing off the NHS altogether, writes Adam Bienkov

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“The NHS is about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python”, former Prime Minister John Major said of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, back in 2016. At the time, his assessment was largely dismissed.

However, as the NHS descends into crisis this winter, it’s clear that the pythons in the Conservative Party are now finally starting to circle.

In outlets including The Times, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, GB News and LBC, Conservative-supporting pundits have argued that the NHS simply “cannot survive” in its present form.

“The NHS doesn’t work,” conservative commentator and LBC host Nick Ferrari told his listeners last week. “We need some sort of private healthcare insurance. It gets £4 billion pound a week. For the love of God man, how much more money do you want to give it?”

Such demands to dismantle the NHS are nothing new.

In the aftermath of the 2005 General Election, half a dozen members of Rishi Sunak’s current Government – including the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove – co-authored a book arguing that the NHS was “no longer relevant” in the 21st Century.

“The problem with the NHS is… that the system remains a centrally run, state monopoly, designed over half a century ago,” they wrote. “We should [instead] fund patients, either through the tax system or by way of universal insurance, to purchase healthcare from the provider of their choice. Those without means would have their contributions supplemented or paid for by the state.”

In the intervening years, the Conservative Party has publicly distanced itself from such an agenda. However, with calls for a fundamental rethink of universal healthcare starting to grow, senior Tory politicians are starting to become more open about their intentions.

“I do think… we may have to look at some means of better-off patients making some modest contribution to their treatment,” former Conservative Chancellor and Sunak supporter Ken Clarke told Times Radio on Monday. “We may have to look for other small payments… We can’t rule it out.”

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Clarke isn’t the only one refusing to rule out NHS charging.

During his leadership campaign this summer, Rishi Sunak also pledged to bring in charges for anyone missing appointments with their GPs, telling Conservative Party members that he planned to stop the service “swallowing up every pound everyone has”.

The Prime Minister’s openness to NHS charges is significant. In recent weeks, Sunak – who recently appointed a private healthcare lobbyist to Downing Street – has repeatedly refused to state whether he and his family pay to opt out of the system, following reports that he pays around £250 for appointments at a private GP surgery.

Pressed on the issue, Sunak told the BBC that it was simply not “relevant” to confirm whether he uses private healthcare, while his spokesman insisted that it was “not in the public interest” to discuss whether he would be happy for his own family to exclusively use the NHS. 

Sunak recently rowed back from his plan to charge for missed GP appointments. However, as demands to rethink universal healthcare continue, Downing Street appears reluctant to completely rule it out.

Asked on Monday whether the Prime Minister agreed with calls from Clarke to introduce charging for GP appointments, his spokesman replied: “I’m not aware of any plans to look at that currently.”

Keen followers of Downing Street statements will note that this was very much not an outright denial.


A Slow Death?

Any plan to completely dismantle the NHS would be hugely difficult.

As the current NHS Confederation chief Lord Victor Adebowale wrote for Byline Times this week in a personal capacity, full privatisation of the service remains a distant prospect. Despite its current difficulties, public support for free universal healthcare also remains incredibly high and it would be difficult for any Government to win a general election on the basis of ending it. Indeed, Sunak himself has repeatedly insisted that he remains committed to providing a health service free at the point of use.

However, a decade of under-investment and rising staff shortages are slowly chipping away at the foundations of public support. At the start of last year, satisfaction with the NHS reached a 25-year low, according to a survey by the Kings’ Fund think tank, and it is only likely to have plummeted further since.

Like a python slowly choking its prey, any attack on the principle of universal healthcare will only come slowly. With demands on the service rising and Sunak committed to keeping a cap on overall funding, hospitals may simply find themselves no longer able to offer services that were previously freely available to all.

And with NHS waiting times growing, more and more patients will inevitably opt to use the private sector instead, further undermining public support for the principle of universal healthcare.

‘Behind Closed Doors Johnson and hisCabinet Do Not Applaud the NHS– They Ideologically Oppose It’

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Like Britain’s exit from the EU, which followed decades of media scare stories, it is clear that parts of the British press are also priming the public for the destruction of the NHS.

In recent weeks, the Daily Mail has filled its pages with reports of millions of pounds being wasted on “woke non-jobs” in the NHS, combined with attempts to label those striking for fair pay as being part of a “left-wing” conspiracy. We can expect much more of this in the weeks and months ahead.

For years, the NHS’ defenders warned that the Conservative Party intended to run-down the service with the eventual aim of killing it off altogether. For years, such warnings were dismissed as hysterical. But, as the service hits breaking point this winter, such dismissals are proving harder to maintain.

The reality is that the death of the NHS, if it comes, will come through a process of gradual constriction, rather than from a single bite. By allowing the service to crumble, while blaming its universal model for its failure, the NHS’ enemies are laying the ground for its eventual death. And as the service comes under growing strain this winter, the risk of that death looks greater than ever before.

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