Sunday, February 05, 2012

Unison demands end to NHS investment

The next time Lib Dems are incorrectly attacked for allowing capital investment to be ended in the NHS by the Labour movement, they may want to consider the following demand from Unison, the Labour supporting trade union. Here in Gateshead Unison are actually demanding the end to investment in new buildings and state of the art technology at one of our local hospitals.

Gateshead NHS Foundation Trust want to build a new centre at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, to bring together accident and emergency, medical admissions, short stay, pediatrics assessment and surgical assessment units under one roof. The aim is to improve the care for patients and avoid the situation in which people have to be shuffled from one building to another, sometimes having to travel to other hospitals. This is a major improvement for the benefit of patients.

The only issue I would question is the plan to include a walk in centre in the same building. We would prefer the walk in centre to be in central Gateshead as, by its nature, it needs to be accessible. The Trust has put forward a logical case to include the walk in centre in the new building at the QE. There is a difference of opinion and the geographical location issues need to be balanced against the improvements that come about by having everything under the same roof.

Unison however have stepped forward with a demand that the investment be cancelled because it could affect their members' jobs. When I first saw this in our local newspaper, I had to read it a few times to be certain I had read it correctly. Unison branch secretary Maddy Nettleship explains, "During the current economic climate, everyone is very worried about their jobs and it seems an inappropriate time to build a new multi-million pound premises at the risk of losing highly-skilled staff.

"In our view, such a big investment could have a detrimental impact upon future services as cutbacks could have to be made - including jobs."

So let's look in detail at what this union boss is saying. Note the use of the word "could" rather than "will". In other words, they don't know for certain whether jobs will be lost or not. What an absurd stance for anyone to take, however: no investment in improvements for patients can take place for this investment may affect someone's job. Imagine that sort of attitude being around in 1948: stop the creation of the NHS because someone's job may be affected. Luddites are still around, it seems. Unison, it appears, are resistant to change even if the outcome is a significant improvement to patient care.

The union's claims about "cutbacks having to be made" merits consideration. Currently, the services currently planned to be moved into the new building are spread out over a large area. Patients have to make a judgement as to which service and site to go to. Often it is the wrong one. That's not the fault of the patient. They have to make a decision without the medical knowledge that ensures they go to the correct service. They get to the service they think they need, wait to be seen and then have to be sent to another establishment. This wastes staff time which could be better used on treating others and it wastes the time of the patient. NHS resources are then used to ship patients to another site. Cut this waste out of the system and there will be an improvement for patients and better use of staff. Having all the front line services under one roof means one reception and people being sent to the right service. They will therefore be seen quicker. And staff will have more time to see more patients. Unison however opposes this logical change.

And the implication that servicing the cost of the investment "could" lead to job losses ignores the fact that it will be cheaper to run the services together under one roof and saves money on not having to transport people around when they turn up to the wrong service.

The last Labour government privatised the supply of new hospital buildings. Their private finance initiative means private companies own and run many of our new hospitals, a massive burden on NHS budgets for years to come, diverting cash from patient care into the pockets of the private sector. The Gateshead investment is not PFI. Instead, the Trust will borrow the money from the government at a low interest rate. The new building will be owned by the Trust, not a PLC. No rent will be paid on it. There will be no obligation, common under PFI, to pay the owner for maintenance services. I would have thought Unison would have jumped at the chance of having such an investment. But no, they want nothing of the sort. No improved health care and no government investment. But at least, now we know what Unison's priorities are.
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