The Guardian

The Guardian May 24, 2000

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

British hospitals to get airline food?

There's something about the way capitalism can organise the affairs of 
humanity that quite takes the breath away, isn't there? Take health 
services, for instance  specifically in Britain, a country with 
impeccable capitalist credentials.

The British national health system (the once-proud NHS) is in crisis. 
Hospitals in particular are suffering: they have insufficient staff, not 
enough beds and nowhere near enough funds. What staff they do have are 
overworked and overstressed.

The Great Ormond Street Hospital, London's famous children's hospital, 
recently had to postpone treatment for children with life-threatening heart 
problems because it had run out of money to hire nurses from outside 

It needed these outside nurses because finding full-time nurses under the 
prevailing conditions of employment was proving impossible.

In Scotland, the whole country's heart-transplant program has ground to a 
halt because the only surgeon, Surendra Naik, resigned to move to 

Twenty-six Scottish heart transplant patients are being put on a waiting 
list for a surgeon in the English city of Newcastle-on-Tyne.

And what is the response of the British Government?

Capitalism can have few more staunch supporters than New Labour's Tony 
Blair and his colleagues. So what is their solution, drawing on the 
expertise and resources of capitalism?

They have called in a successful capitalist entrepreneur to advise on 
improving the image of the NHS! Of course.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn has actually called in the boss of Virgin 
Airlines, Richard Branson, to effect this image polishing.

Branson is sending some of his executives around various hospitals for a 
look see (he probably goes to private clinics, himself) after which they 
will make recommendations to the Government on ... wait for it ... better 
food, cleaner accommodation, bedside televisions, levels of privacy and the 
politeness of staff.

And you thought a run-down health service could only be improved by more 
doctors and nurses, more beds and equipment and even more hospitals. Ho, 
ho. How foolish you must now be feeling.

You can see the corporate thinking here: nurses, flight attendants  
obviously much the same.

Virgin will teach the nurses how to bring the tea trolley around with 
aplomb while pointing out the whereabouts of the fire exits and the health 
crisis will go away. It sounds ludicrous because it is ludicrous.

Better food (assuming they don't mean airline food) requires more money 
just as cleaner accommodation requires new floorcoverings and more 

Better levels of privacy means smaller wards or even private rooms which 
requires structural work that must surely cost money. And isn't money what 
capitalist governments won't spend on public health anymore because they 
say they don't have it?

Bedside televisions will be paid for by the patients, I have no doubt, so 
perhaps that is what they intend to do with the rest. Make the patients pay 
for "extras" like privacy and food.

Doesn't it demonstrate the contempt that capitalists and their MPs have for 
working people that they could seriously believe that cosmetic measures 
like the Branson initiative would relieve public concern over the on-going 
destruction of the public health system  in Britain or here in Australia?

And Branson will presumably be paid a handsome "consultancy" fee for his 

Branson's people will advise the Health Secretary on the "politeness of 
staff". Ah, yes. Rude nurses, that's the problem!

Actually, NHS staff, health professionals after all, have been making 
recommendations  for free  on improvements to the British public health 
system for decades, but their advice has been systematically ignored.

Commenting on the Branson move, the British Medical Association's Peter 
Hawker said he had recently sat for 45 minutes in a packed Virgin commuter 
train that had broken down. "Branson is still using the same old trains 
that can suffer problems", he said. "We're still using the same over-
stretched hospitals."

* * *
Digging up the past! We come to praise Stalin, not to bury him. A 2.5-metre statue of Stalin, long thought lost in the post-1956 destruction of Stalin monuments, has been returned to its place in the main square of the Georgian city of Khashuri. It turned out that local people had buried the statue at the time rather than destroy it. The statue was dug up and restored several weeks ago and after lengthy negotiations the local war veterans' association and the United Georgian Communist Party convinced the town authorities to agree to its being put back on its original pedestal. Several hundred people attended the unveiling on May 7 by Communist leader, retired Soviet Army General Panteleimon Georgadze. "Ordinary people are more and more convinced that they were deceived by so- called democrats in Russia as well as Georgia", he said. "The Soviet Union, the great power, will be restored when people unite around the ideas of Josef Stalin." The restoration of the statue could not have pleased Georgia's President, Edvard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev's former Foreign Minister and a staunch anti-communist. The question now being asked of course is how many more buried statues are there?

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