NHS privatisation has left us workers and patients in limbo

This piece was commissioned by guest editor Jon Ashworth.

For six years I have been delivering the most precious of things. Not presents or parcels, but patients.

Ambulance workers like me transport patients who need to get to medical appointments but have no way of getting to and from hospital without support. They are often very ill and need help getting to operations, or regular treatments such as dialysis or oncology appointments.

NHS privatisation has left us workers and patients in limbo. Our experience should be a stark warning of what selling off parts of the NHS can do and why Labour’s commitment to end privatisation in the NHS is so vital. 

The Patient Transport Service (PTS) in Sussex was given to a company called Coperforma, which then subcontracted to Thames Ambulance and Docklands Medical Services. It was broken up and sold off to the lowest bidder. Coperforma had never run a service like this before – in fact, they didn’t even own a single ambulance – but their main ‘selling point’ was that they could plan ambulance journeys via a taxi app.

As you can imagine, this private company’s lack of experience and apparent lack of understanding of the needs of patients set alarms bells and not sirens ringing, despite the best efforts of those of us who transferred. Patient transport services aren’t a taxi service – we are skilled healthcare staff. We deal with vulnerable patients, many of whom can be confused and disorientated, either due to dementia or mental health problems like schizophrenia. Many have physical limitations that mean getting around is challenging.

Sadly fears about this company were proved right: they were nothing but private profiteers. The equipment was substandard, the ambulances were barely road-worthy, vehicles were so dirty that staff had to spend large amounts of time getting them clean and usable. There was essential equipment missing like defibrillators and blankets, uniforms weren’t available for many months and those that were eventually provided were of poor quality.

The app failed to work from day one; we discovered that we were crossing each other’s paths numerous times a day. Because the app didn’t work, we were taking patients to appointments that they had already missed. We were getting no back-up from the management because they had no knowledge of the service. It was clear to us the service we were so proud of was being run by complete charlatans. Our first and most basic concern was that the service was unsafe.

Then we stopped being paid. We are already low-paid workers, and despite this we continued providing the service as best we could. We stopped using the app and used our personal mobile phones to arrange our plans for the day with each other. In the end, we weren’t paid for three months. Part of this period fell over Christmas and I can honestly say many of us wouldn’t have got through that Christmas had GMB Union not provided members with supermarket vouchers.

Alongside our union, we ran a campaign to be proud of. The health bosses refused to listen, so we went around the county protesting outside the surgeries of the GPs on the board of the Clinical Commissioning Group demanding they listen to us. Finally, they got the message. The contract was offered back to NHS trusts and thankfully South Central Ambulance Service took the contract over.  This was a huge relief and we finally got the money we were owed.

Although we ambulance staff got our money back, the taxpayer is still left out of pocket. The original contract was for £14m a year. Despite running the service for just seven months, the Coperforma cowboys were paid £16m overall. The extra money was a sweetener to encourage them to cooperate during the transfer back to the NHS. The company also failed to pay pension contributions, which will now have to be honoured by the state. This is how private companies can hold the NHS to ransom.

Our campaign epitomises everything wrong with NHS privatisation. As with the East Coast line and Carillion, the government are happy to have the public sector rescue the private sector when things go wrong but it is not prepared to give them the resources and security to run it long-term. Cases like ours prove that the public sector are best-suited to run these vital services but their reward is that as soon as the service is improved, it is handed straight back to the private sector for profit to be made again.

For me and thousands of other ambulance workers, we will continue to care about patients, not profits. If we want the NHS to be here in another 70 years, we are going to need government to do the same. We need a government willing to invest not only resources but also in the principles on which the NHS was founded – a health service that meets the needs of everyone, free at the point of delivery and based on clinical need, never the ability to pay.

Geoff Hough is a GMB rep and works for South Central Ambulance Service.

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