The Dirty War on the NHS

John Pilger’s timely doc reveals some uncomfortable truths

Veteran journalist and documentarian, John Pilger, probably couldn’t believe his luck when a few days ago Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed he had come into possession of a dossier detailing plans to ‘sell out’ the NHS as part of Brexit-related trade discussions. His new film, The Dirty War on the NHS, centres itself on that same subject, and whether just another political stunt or not, Pilger will be hoping Corbyn’s claim draws attention to a crisis he believes threatens to tear down a 71-year-old national institution.

Although the case put forward by Pilger states that the threat has been building for the past four decades, with the National Health Service being sold off surreptitiously to major UK and American health insurance companies. The go-to option in a documentary such as this would be lay the blame at the door of the Conservative party who opposed the concept from the very off, but Pilger’s old school investigative approach shows how Labour and the Lib Dems have all contributed to the deteriorating state of the NHS.

Pilger’s no frills filmmaking style is more suited to the small screen, which is where many of his documentaries eventually end up (as will this one). Here he lines up an array of talking head doctors, experts and analysts who underline the opening statement that this year more of the NHS has been sold off to private companies than ever before. As author and Spinwatch campaigner Tamasin Cave says, the NHS is a “£120 billion opportunity” for already rich and powerful healthcare companies to increase their stake in the global medical market.

The film opens on an American TV news clip discussing the horrific epidemic of ‘patient dumping’, where people with mental health issues are turfed out of their hospital beds in the middle of the night and dumped on the street. A homeless charity in the UK says similar events are occurring here, with the need to maximise profit the underlying factor. The more time a patient occupies a single bed, the less opportunity there is to charge someone new for their care.

Much of The Dirty War on the NHS is spent watching Pilger speaking with seasoned professionals explaining how debt has been purposely loaded onto over 120 hospitals to facilitate the need to outsource their services. Lord David Owen recalls how the previous coalition government sold out the NHS with the passing of the Health and Social Care act in 2012. We are told how MPs Oliver Letwin and John Redwood’s radical plans for the NHS back in the late 80s ignited the idea of slowly breaking down the NHS piece-by-piece over an extended period of time. And where Labour made the dream of a free health service for all a reality in 1948, the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative by Tony Blair’s government was effectively its death knoll.

There are plenty of troubling quotes and facts pitched in-between these reveals, before Pilger moves into the final act to visit a free healthcare initiative in the US called Remote Area Medical (RAM). While never said explicitly, it suggests this is what life could be like for thousands (if not millions) in the UK should people be made to pay for medical assistance. RAM was originally set up by Londoner Stan Brock and moves around the country offering treatment to those unable to afford the high costs of the American system. 20,000 people die every year in the US due to having no access to healthcare, and based on the evidence presented by Pilger, there is every reason to fear the UK is heading down the same road.

Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Jon Ashworth, briefly appears in the closing minutes to confidently tell us Labour will cut all ties with the private sector (Pilger says no-one in government responded to his requests for an interview). Promises will continue to be made by political parties during this election period in a desperate pitch to claim office, with the NHS – and our wellbeing – dangled in-front of our noses to tempt us onto one side or the other. It is often said that the winners of a dirty war are those willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done, and unless there is an opposition willing to roll up their sleeves to fight for the NHS, the battle may already be lost.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

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