July 5 marked the 66th birthday of the NHS. Unfortunately it was no cause for celebration as the government continues its attempts to dismantle the NHS. To mark the day, hundreds marched through the streets of East London in protest against cuts to GP funding which threaten to devastate GP services in some of the most deprived parts of the country.
As part of their attacks on the NHS, the government is changing the way funding is allocated to GP services. Traditionally funding has been allocated based on deprivation, with greater funding based on greater need. This has now been changed to allocate more funds to areas with older, rather than more deprived, populations. Given that life expectancy is shorter in more deprived areas, and longer in wealthier areas, this change is resulting in funding being reallocated from poorer to richer areas, increasing health inequalities and depriving those areas most in need of the resources to run vital services.
Minimum Practice Income Guarantee (MPIG) was brought in 2004 to ensure that practices in deprived areas with a high turnover of patients were adequately funded to deliver high quality General Practice services. It is the phasing out of the MPIG over the next 7 years, having started this April, which will mean many inner city urban and rural practices do not have the resources to provide the services their patients need, and will be forced to cut back or even close.
As an example, one practice, Jubilee Street in Tower Hamlets, stands to lose almost £1 million over the next 7 years. Even if it survives, its services will be massively reduced. These changes are designed to starve GPs of funds, forcing them to implement cuts, or even close, opening the way for private sector providers to step in.
There are 98 GP practices in England that are as badly affected by MPIG as Jubilee Street – many of these are in London and five are in Tower Hamlets. Other practices in the borough are also feeling the strain. If a single practice closes, patients will lose their access to many NHS services and treatments, and continuity of care and experience built up over decades will be lost. If five practices are forced to cut back or close there will inevitably be more pressure on the rest, risking collapse of the whole system and opening up the possibility that GP services will be taken over by private providers such as Virgin or Care UK.
Thankfully the GP practices in East London have united and along with local Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) groups in Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney have launched the Save Our Surgeries campaign. The GPs, with support from KONP and their patients and local communities have launched a Lewisham-style campaign of protests and marches to raise awareness and challenge the governments policy.
On July 5 Save Our Surgeries held a rally and leafleting at Stratford station. The rally was addressed by Jan Blake, a retired health visitor who described how the government has set in place a programme of ongoing ‘efficiency savings’ and privatisation in hospitals which is rapidly diminishing services. Dr Mary Edmondson talked about the threat of closure to her award winning health centre. Hospital Unison stewards talked about the pressure put on hospitals by reduced GP services and the need to unite to defend all health services. Charlotte Munro from Whipps Cross hospital spoke about the bullying culture in the hospital that has arisen due to the pressure of austerity on the NHS, and how she was sacked for speaking out against cuts to services which would have endangered patients.
50 people from the rally then took a campaign bus round Newham to leaflet communities. The bus then travelled to Altab Ali park in Tower Hamlets to join a several hundred strong rally of those opposed to the cuts. The rally was addressed by GPs, patients and Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman, who pledged to support the campaign in its fight to preserve services for Tower Hamlets residents.
The crowd then marched through Tower Hamlets and up through Hackney before holding a final rally in London Fields. Thisrally was addressed by Diane Abbott MP, Gail Cartmail of Unite, Maureen Baker of the RCGP and Prof Alyson Pollock, leading researcher and academic on health. The demonstration was well organised and had massive public support, with hundreds turning out for the rally and march, many bringing home-made banners and placards, and many people taking leaflets to hand out themselves. GPs are uniquely well placed in the community, and have used their deep roots to build support for the campaign and ensure patients are involved and mobilised.
This demonstration secured some much needed coverage of the issue, but was just the beginning, and Save our Surgeries hope they can link up with other practices around the country to strengthen the campaign and defend this cornerstone of the NHS.
What can you do?
Write to your local GP surgery and ask them whether they are affected by the changes to MPIG. Some practices may not have realised how badly affected they will be, or do not know how to respond. Put them in touch with Save Our Surgeries who can provide support and information, and help develop the campaign into the national movement we need to defend GP services.