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BMA’s weak opposition to health bill is failing GPs – and betraying the NHS

The BMA has a mandate to publicly campaign against the bill. It must do so immediately, says Dr Louise Irvine

As a GP who has been campaigning against the Health and Social Care Bill, I was greatly encouraged when on 20 July, BMA Council called for the BMA to start a public campaign for withdrawal of the bill. It heralded the kind of medical leadership that I felt was essential for the bill to be defeated.

Yet six weeks later there is still no sign of a public campaign. When is it going to start? The leadership of the BMA is failing us. Ever since the white paper was published, it has been hesitant and defeatist. It has had to be dragged by its membership to call for withdrawal of the bill. It has a mandate to campaign publicly against the bill and must do so. Pressure is mounting against the bill again. The major health unions – Unite, Unison, GMB – are actively campaigning against it. The RCGP has backed the BMA call for withdrawal. This is an opportunity for the BMA to lead a powerful campaign against the bill which would have a strong chance of success.

It's not too late for action, but there needs to be a sense of urgency. After the third reading on 7 September in the Commons, the bill goes to the Lords – where it faces a stormy ride, with some peers stating they will propose ‘wrecking' amendments and others that they will vote against it. There will be renewed press coverage and opportunities for those who oppose the bill to explain the nature of the threat to the public.

The public is the key to all this, as polls have shown high levels of support for the NHS and opposition to privatisation. Any party that is seen to damage the NHS faces electoral defeat. For this reason, the public has been deliberately misinformed about the true intentions of the Government, which has repeatedly reassured them that there will be no privatisation of the NHS.

The ‘listening exercise' was a clever deception, trumpeted as fundamentally changing the bill when it did nothing of the sort. The public, on the whole, is unaware of what is at stake and the Government is happy to keep it that way.

It knows that if the public were to wake up to the true nature and intention of this bill – the denationalisation of the NHS amounting to the repeal of the NHS's founding Act – then the bill could not survive. GPs, having the most detailed understanding of the likely impact on patient care, have the responsibility to inform people about the damage that this bill will do to the NHS. The profession's views will carry weight in the Lords. That's why Cameron is so keen to co-opt us to his side, stating recently that the whole of the profession is now behind the reforms. 

The BMA could have a major impact and help create the kind of campaign that would make it impossible for this bill to be passed. We are living in historic times. This is not just any old reorganisation – it is the reorganisation to end all reorganisations because there will not be a national health service if this bill is passed, just a collection of disparate competing organisations using the NHS logo. All who care about the NHS have a duty to act – and our leaders have a duty to lead. Otherwise for generations to come, the BMA will go down in history as having failed to provide leadership of the movement to save the NHS.

Dr Louise Irvine is a GP in South London