Mark Steel: They'd privatise hospital trolleys if they could

If there was competition, DHL might arrive to find they'd been beaten by the lad from Domino's Pizza
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The Independent Online

You know when you get that bubble-wrapping, and take pleasure in popping all the bubbles... then sometimes when you think you've done them all you find a patch unpopped and get a little surge of joy that there's still a few to do?

That must be what it's like for Tony Blair when he finds something left he hasn't privatised. This week, he's discovered the service that delivers things to hospitals, so off it goes to a bunch of businessmen. Maybe that's what caused the latest row between him and Gordon Brown, they were both shrieking: "I found it, let me do it."

I suppose they'll argue that privatisation will improve the service, after the success of private investment initiatives such as Wembley Stadium, the Dome, Virgin trains and Railtrack. Luckily, the contract hasn't been awarded to Jarvis, or they'd somehow manage to tip an entire children's ward upside down during a delivery of fish fingers.

Maybe the railway companies will take over the rest of the health service. Then heart by-pass patients could be told: "We're going to wheel you as far as the maternity ward. Then to get to cardio you'll need a Silverlink trolley, but I haven't got a timetable for them, or you could go direct but that will mean going via Wolverhampton."

Instead, the lucky company with the £1.6bn deal appears to be DHL, the parcel delivery people. They must be exploring the business potential of delivering things to hospitals, such as special deals, so the staff respond to orders by saying: "This month, Sir, with each dialysis machine we are offering king-size packets of Toblerone at half price."

Or they'll suggest that after each delivery, the driver could take away anyone who has died, thus increasing efficiency all round. They've probably already produced a brochure: "Is your stiff beginning to whiff? Then end the smell with DHL".

The argument for privatisation used to be that better services were provided by competition. But now they don't even offer that, it's just sold off in total so the company can't lose.

At least if there was competition, DHL might arrive at the Royal Infirmary to find they'd been beaten by the lad from Domino's Pizza. And surgeons would be stood over an operating table, on the phone to a cab firm, screaming: "Where's my bloody scalpel," as the controller said: "Two minutes, mate, he's right outside."

Patricia Hewitt, the New Labour health woman, denies that DHL's main interest in this job is profit. Of course it isn't. After the first year, the chairman will stand up at the shareholders' meeting and announce: "The annual report gives us excellent news. For in the year ending 31 March we delivered absolutely tonnes of stuff to sick people. We didn't make a single penny, but you should have seen the look on their little faces."

But strangely, it already appears the delivery system will change, so that according to a union official: "At the moment, wards can order one packet of something if they want. Under DHL they'll have to order 14 boxes, then find space to store them."

So hospitals will be in the same position as anyone else waiting for something to be delivered. The manager of a ward will be on the phone, exasperated, as he's told: "The trouble is, mate, I can't come all the way over to Tooting just to deliver one life support machine.

"Here, I tell you what I'll do, if I stick it in with a dozen boxes of toilet roll that makes it a bulk order, I can pass it over to South-west division, they should have it with you tomorrow morning, some time between 5am and eight in the evening."

The union has balloted its members over strike action against the sale, to which there was a 74 per cent vote in favour. So now there'll be all the old articles about strikes in the health service, with headlines such as "Callous nurses put 50 million at risk," over a story that goes: "A health expert has warned that if a giant asteroid lands on Britain this afternoon, severely injuring 50 million people, because of the strike none of them would be treated, meaning we're all at risk of infection."

The only plausible reason for this deal is New Labour believes nothing can work unless it is motivated by profit. It's easy to see how you might believe that if you've got a wife who won't turn up to a charity event unless she's making twenty grand out of it, but Tony Blair seems to think there's a law of physics that if a substance isn't owned in part by Balfour Beatty, the substance will melt.

But as anyone who has contact with the National Health Service recognises, most of the staff are driven by more than a financial deal. Indeed, they upset the whole New Labour ethos by caring about patients, even though they're not being paid a "care bonus". The delivery staff have threatened to strike because, as their union official says, "This isn't a service the Government should be gambling with."

Whereas Alan Johnson, minister for something or other, gave an interview yesterday in which he said the unions must put aside "narrow self-interest". Presumably he means the way businessmen do, such as those whose city bonuses this year have increased by 21 billion bleeding bloody quid.

This is why Blair wants to hang on as long as he can. Because only when all selflessness and caring has been replaced by modernised profit-driven greed, will the "triumph of Blairism" be complete.