How to Open up a Second Front in the Battle for the NHS

by Keir Milburn

Today the UK’s junior doctors went on strike between 9am and 5pm without providing emergency cover – the first time this has happened in the history of the NHS. It’s a bold move and so far it seems to have paid off. Reports from picket lines across the country told of large, solid pickets respected by the vast majority of those eligible to strike.

Importantly, public support for the doctors’ dispute has also held strong – one poll showing 57% in favour with only 26% against. Yet their victory in the dispute is far from ensured. The doctors face a whole series of difficult problems when trying to undertake serious action.

The first is common to all whose job includes caring for others: how do you withdraw your labour without appearing not to care? The second problem, common to all of us, is Britain’s restrictive laws, designed to ensure that unions can’t win strikes. The law says unions can only call strikes on the direct terms and conditions of their members, yet in interviews doctors have been insistent that the dispute is actually about patient safety within the context of the government’s long-term project of privatising the NHS.

The ‘Picket the Profiteers’ initiative and call-out was formed to address these problems and bring social movement tactics to supplement, socialise and escalate the strike in ways that the doctors’ union wasn’t able to. Earlier today, groups in ten different cities answered the call by picketing private health providers, who are set to gain from the dismantling of the NHS.

The day started in London with the shutting down of the head offices of Virgin Care and the unfurling of an eight-foot banner saying ‘We Will Fight For Our NHS’.

The action then shifted across London to the Royal College of Physicians where a group of protesters tried to get into a conference of CEOs of companies profiting from NHS privatisation. For a moment it looked like they’d storm the meeting with helium balloons carrying stink bombs and alarms but when security guards prevented them the protesters had to settle for haranguing the conference participants on their way in.

The action then shifted up north with a group from Manchester starting their tour of profiteers. They occupied the offices of Virgin Money and Capita while also managing to close a Virgin Money high street branch. At 12pm the remaining actions kicked off around the country, timed to coincide with people’s lunch hour. Pickets began in Sheffield, Birmingham, Chester, Oxford, Liverpool and Brighton, while lively tours of profiteers took place in Leicester and Leeds.

The Leeds tour started at the Nuffield hospital. Nuffield Health is ostensibly a private health charity, but its model raises an eyebrow. As a charity it pays little tax yet the Charity Commission has queried how much ‘public benefit’ it actually offers, while its chief executive, David Mobbs, is the highest earner in the ‘not-for-profit’ sector. The group then moved off to picket Boots, whose outrageous scalping of the NHS was exposed in a recent Guardian article, before shutting down a branch of Virgin Money. The latter is owned by Virgin Group Holdings, which pays no corporation tax in the UK despite another subsidiary, Virgin Care, being awarded over £1bn worth of NHS contracts in the last five years.

As a first step, today’s actions against profiteers were very successful. So far the campaign has been pulled together by a small group of organisations (including but not limited to Plan C, NHS Uncut, Action for Trans Health and ACT UP) over a two week period, and the hope is that the actions will continue to spread and grow. There is the real prospect of bringing outrage about the Panama papers together with support for the junior doctors. Picket the Profiteers is opening up a second front against the government and austerity. Next time, why not join in?

Photo: Picket the Profiteers

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Published 26th April 2016

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