The year was 2010. Only two years ago the credit crunch had plunged the global economy into total disarray. The Conservative Party, enabled by the Liberal Democrats, took office with a great plan to put the UK back on track. At the heart of their vision were companies like Virgin Care, who were supposedly going to help fix the dire situation the country faced. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Austerity - the coalition government’s plan of action. As the government rolled out its plans for a sustained reduction in public spending, it was also made known that private companies like Virgin Care were to step in and play a key role in delivering the public services the UK depends on. In this sense, the privatisation was depicted as a kind, benign force, relieving the severely strained public infrastructure of its vast responsibilities. Moreover, outsourcing to private companies was presented as the overwhelmingly pragmatic option – it was in the interest of the public because it would improve the efficiency of these services and it was in the interest of private organisations who would profit from large contracts. These good intentions aside, austerity has had a devastating effect on our country.
Virgin Care, one of the biggest winners of NHS privatisation, has proven to be more of a parasite than an asset. Despite having around approximately 400 contracts across England and treating about one million people since 2010, it has not paid any corporation tax because of its apparent “losses”. Dr Lister, Secretary and health policy academic at the group Keep Our NHS Public, highlighted the deep irony saying that “the company … only takes resources from the public service while contributing nothing of value”. Whether you think Vodafone and Amazon avoiding taxes is right or wrong, a private company that benefits directly from public service contracts avoiding taxes warrants a universal condemnation.
To add insult to injury, Virgin is not satisfied with just avoiding tax while profiting immensely from our public infrastructure. In 2016 Virgin Care started litigation proceedings against NHS England after the private healthcare group lost its bid to provide children’s services in Surrey. The NHS then had to pay a £2 million settlement to the company. Sara Gorton, the deputy head of health at Unison expressed great dismay at the fact that Virgin was “even prepared to go to court to win contracts … [although it] cost the NHS dearly”. Evidently these profit-driven bodies know no boundaries and must be kept separate from our vital public services.
From this, it is clear that the successive Conservative governments have got their priorities wrong. For years public service health professionals worked diligently despite their wages decreasing in real terms, while the likes of Virgin Care have been suing the already cash-strapped NHS. How the government fails to recognise this inherent injustice, I will never know…
This continual daylight robbery exposes the truth that austerity and mass privatisation post-2010 was not a necessity but a political choice, driven by ideology. David Cameron’s so-called ‘Big Society’ initiative which involved reducing government, with charities and private companies delivering public services, was at its heart an ideological mission rather than an economic imperative as it is often represented. Their successful execution of this vision was grounded in their depiction of the 2008 financial crash, a crisis of poorly regulated global capitalism as a crisis of public spending. Furthermore, in the years that followed the Conservatives used the hypothetical dangers of debts and deficit to justify the deconstruction of the welfare state and privatisation.
The state of the country is very telling of impact austerity has had. While both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have declared that austerity is over, they have failed to recognise the consequences of their party’s callous policies. A study carried out by BMJ Open linked approximately 120,000 death between 2010 and 2017 with austerity. Furthermore, the Office of National Statistics found a fall in life expectancy for those in poorer socioeconomic groups and those living in deprived areas, while average UK life expectancy stopped increasing. Friedrich Engels defined such dealings as ‘social murder’; distinct from murder and manslaughter, social murder involves the government making decisions that would ‘inevitably [cause some people from the working classes to meet] a too early and unnatural death”.
The immense human cost undermines the narrative of austerity and privatisation always being desirable, and it reinforces the necessity of public services being driven by empathy rather than profit. Thus, it is time to stop allowing private companies to exploit our vital public infrastructure.