The Royal College of Physicians has always promoted public health provision and was crucial in the founding of the National Health Service. Because of this, it’s all the more dispiriting that last Tuesday it played host to “Breaking Barriers”, a conference of CEOs of private healthcare companies from around the world. These CEOs are unyielding in their quest to weasel their way into the public healthcare sector in every country and squeeze it dry. They stand against everything the RCP claims to care about.
The two-day event coincided with the all-out junior doctor’s strike, and with demonstrations and pickets popping up across the UK, we weren’t going to sit idle. Picket the Profiteers and NHS Uncut, an alliance of NHS staff and patients, called a series of actions around the country, supported by a number of organizations including ACT UP.
One group successfully shut down Virgin Care’s London HQ; another crashed the offices of Capita, an insurance company with a track record of profiting off the NHS, in Manchester. In front of the RCP conference, a picket was called – but we weren’t going to stop there. As CEOs were filing into the building, a group of us ran past the guards to try and take control of the door. The plan was to storm into the lecture theatre, where the opening keynote was being delivered, with banners and megaphones and disrupt it as much as possible. We were well prepared with personal alarms attached to helium balloons at the ready.
The front door was well guarded, however, as was one of the back entrances – at both scuffles with security and RCP staff ensued, with one of the protesters being clocked in the face by an indignant RCP staff member. We didn’t get through but we still felt accomplished at having made them feel extremely unwelcome – and on a more symbolic level, in having demonstrated how the movement for free, accessible healthcare has been gathering momentum and that the frustration with the private sector’s shameless capitalizing on human suffering is reaching fever pitch.
We were protesting not only the conference itself, but also the RCP facilitating such an event; providing a platform for profiteers while lending credibility and legitimacy to the gathering. We believe that the privatization of healthcare – a universal human right – is a grotesque way of preying on the vulnerable. This was encapsulated by the goal of the conference; “breaking into emerging markets”, i.e. taking advantage of the precarity of healthcare provision in countries with less well developed public services. At home, the outsourcing NHS services to private operators such as Ramsey Healthcare UK, the CEO of which was one of the conference speakers, is part of a larger project to atomize our healthcare service in a way that allows the rich to profit from it.
Providing the best possible care for vulnerable people and making a large profit from it are incompatible goals, and it’s clear which one private healthcare operators prioritize. To quote the event brochure, “as tariffs fall in Europe, so operators are looking to cut costs whilst increasing or maintaining quality.” Except that you can’t increase quality when you’re constantly looking for new ways to slash the costs of the service you’re providing because your prime concern is lining the pockets of your shareholders.
Afterwards, as we recuperated in a coffeeshop, a journalist asked me why it was so important to us to physically disrupt the conference and what I would say to the CEOs were I given the chance to address them. The longer I thought about the answer, the clearer it became to me that it was important to physically disrupt this event because you can’t negotiate or debate with something as powerful and behemoth-like as the private healthcare industry. It’s for this reason I can’t think of anything I could say that would appeal to the consciences of the CEOs seated in that lecture theatre – it’s not the methods, but the very existence and goals of their companies that are antithetical to what we believe in, which is free access to the best possible healthcare for everyone. They stand in the way of that. Words can only get you so far when you’re up against something so fundamentally opposed to what is right – sometimes you have to take action.
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