“This isn’t just a time to learn from the past, but time to shape a new future,” general secretary Dave Prentis told delegates at the UNISON health conference in Brighton today.
This summer mark’s the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service – what Mr Prentis called “the greatest achievement of our union and our movement. It’s something to fight for, a beacon for the world, the envy of the world.
“It’s lasted 70 years and it’s our duty to ensure that it lasts another 70 years,” he said. “It’s the greatest institution our county has ever known.
“So whenever politicians tell you that new public services are too expensive, too complicated, that there are other priorities – point them to the NHS and compare.”
But he added that health members today “face so many challenges”, including lack of resources, constant reorganisation, growing waiting lists, rising privatisation and fragmentation and the constant demand “to do more with less.”
As a result, he said, “there is more stress on the NHS’s most valuable resource – its staff.”
UNISON members will be taking to the streets on 12 May to Step Up for Public Services at the TUC national demonstration, and again on 30 June, in an NHS anniversary march to celebrate and defend the health service.
And the union continues to fight for the funding the health service needs.
“Austerity was always a failed dogma, but now more than ever it is fraying at the edges. You see every day how it has let down patients and staff,” Mr Prentis said.
“It’s so bad that even some Tories say the NHS needs more money. But [health secretary] Jeremy Hunt won’t give it up lightly.
“We’ll have to campaign, convince and cajole. We’ll have to wring every penny out of him.”
The good news, he added, is that “we know our campaigning does have an effect. After years of hard work, at long last, we’ve squeezed an extra £4.2bn of new money from this Tory government for pay for NHS workers.
“Now UNISON members will decide – as they always do in our union – what comes next.”
The general secretary reminded conference that the SS Windrush arrived in Tilbury Port just two weeks before the NHS was established – the histories of the NHS and the Windrush generation who helped to make it prosper were ‘inseparable’.
Mr Prentis has just written to home secretary Amber Rudd, demanding that she confirm the legal status of the Windrush generation and their children, end the threat of deportation of people in their communities, and also ensure that Albert Thompson receive the cancer treatment that he has so far been denied.
“The driving force of our union is the creation of a fairer and more equal society. And that means fighting for the values that underpin our NHS,” he said.
“Our fight is not just to keep the NHS strong. It’s to build on what makes it great and make it greater still. This will be the greatest fight in the long and illustrious history of our NHS.”