Helen Salisbury is one of thirteen NHA candidates across the country that the electorate can vote for on May 7th. Formed as a direct result of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, the party were formed with the NHS and its survival in mind. “This act brought about a radical change to the NHS”, Helen explained. “The party was formed by doctors, nurses, paramedics, because we could see what was going to happen due to the huge amount of competition was that encouraged within the health service.”
It’s the party’s first General Election. “It’s very interesting so far”, Helen says with a genuine sincerity, “I’m finding lots of people who are interested in the main issues I want to talk about, which is health and the health service.” Within Oxford West and Abingdon, she’s aware of the marginality of the seat itself. “It was such a narrow margin last time. There’s a lot of effort going into saying that people need to vote Lib Dem to keep the Conservatives out, but I doubt they’ll get the vote they got last time, after the last five years.”
With such a dominant focus on the NHS, I asked Helen about the parties other policies; many people aren’t aware that there is a lot else. “We are unashamedly focused on the NHS”, Helen freely admits, “But we’re also interested in health in its wider contexts – poverty, housing, our environment, our food, transport, all of these things play into if we have healthy lives or not.” On the austerity debate, NHA has firmly put its policies into one side of the basket – “We’re an anti-austerity party”, Helen declares. “The austerity policies of the last government have been incredibly damaging for people’s both mental and physical health, and really quite punitive and horrible for the most vulnerable in our society.”
I ask her what really separates her party from the Greens – it appears that the two have similar views on a lot of social issues. “They are probably our nearest party”, she admits, “but the Greens have been around for 40 years, and haven’t made much electoral headway yet. They have some good policies and some good people. We’re not as focussed on the environment. The urgency is the health service”, she says, and looks genuinely concerned when she goes on to state “that is the thing that is crumbling as we speak, and we need to do something about it”.
“Many people don’t realise the dangers that we’re in. The NHS is teetering on the brink. We may be about to lose one of the things that is most precious to us.” Helen’s dissatisfaction with the current state of the health service comes from the fact that “things are getting harder and harder and harder to do what you need for patients. Everywhere we look, the service is struggling and falling apart.” She quotes recent figures put forward by one of the company’s heads, someone that comes from an American national health provider – “it sells”, Helen bluntly remarks. “£22 billion in efficiency savings is completely unmanageable. There’s no way it can be done.”
It seems that a lot of the dissatisfaction comes from a general lack of practical policy – “There was no appetite amongst doctors for the reorganisation that happened in 2013. Most of us just thought it was going to be a nightmare and it has been. We were always going to be facing a difficult time financially, but then we wasted £3.5 billion on the reorganisation, then masses and masses more in the market system.” Helen and I discuss the costs involved in trying to establish contracts whilst introducing privatisation. Even when the deals fall through, transaction and contract costs appear to be eating away at the already reduced funding of the service. “The person that ultimately pays is the patient”, Helen summarises, sounding somewhat downbeat.
She regains her momentum, however, when we move onto a more general discussion about other policies the party offers, and concerns they see within the country. “I think housing raises the questions about inequality. I don’t know if the electorate in general is as angry as I am about growing inequality”, Helen explains, mentioning the difference between “the already haves” and the “have nots” as motivation for these claims.
Within the local community, Helen feels that “there are lots of concerns”. Housing is mentioned, notably the price of houses within Oxford meaning that people can’t afford to live here. This also has a knock on effect for the health sector, where the workers can’t afford to be near the city; Helen mentions staff she knows who are forced to live hours away and commute daily.
There doesn’t seem to be a simple solution, either. “The flip side of that is how much new building should there be, where should it go. There are huge debates about how much of the green belt should be built on, and where new houses will go. The councils haven’t been very good at holding developers to their obligation to make more affordable housing – we need to be more imaginative about housing density too”, she concludes, succinctly summarising the discussions that seem to have plagued the city for years now.
As a tutor at Oxford, Helen appears aware of some issues faced by students on a regular basis, and concerns that they have which may well influence their voting decisions. “We want to get rid of tuition fees. It’s not clear that they’re helpful in raising income and cause a lot of grief for many students. That feeling of indebtedness is not pleasant.” Like many supporters of no-fees, Helen herself benefited from the old system by which higher education was free, but taxes were paid when working. “That seemed to work well”, she said, “I don’t see why we can’t go back to that”.
However, Helen feels that the NHS and young people are more connected than the latter may realise. “A lot of young people are blissfully isolated from the inner problems of the health and social services, unless they have families which are involved or work within it.” Despite this bubblewrapping, a lot of young people are finding the coalition treatment of the NHS does affect them, Helen argues. We move on to discuss mental health provisions: “There was been a huge reduction in the availability of the mental health services, and that has hit a lot of students. The university here has a service of its own, but on the wider scale mental health services have really suffered in the last five years.”
Again, we spend a while discussing the NHS and the problems it is facing, issues which it is obvious Helen feels incredibly passionately about. “We all take it for granted at the moment. The main parties are making loads of big and wonderful promises” – here, she laughs – “and you think that’s all very well, but who is going to provide this service – where are the staff? At the moment, they’re just not there to deliver that. Unrealistic promises are being given”. Where do these unrealistic promises come from? Helen feels it is a lack of practical knowledge: “The people making the health policy are doing what they think will please the voters, rather than what is actually possible.”
I ask her what she feels is possible, then. She’s quick to reply, “Reinstate the Secretary of State’s duty to provide healthcare for the people of this country,” – a duty revoked by the 2012 Act – “scrap the market which is wasteful of resources. Put some money in, so that hospitals aren’t trying to make savings which are inefficient anyway; we need a cash injection really straight away”, Helen summarises, before discussing the party’s income tax policy in order to raise temporary funds for the service.
Moving back to young people, we discuss the issues that first time, young voters will experience under the new government. “For the winners – and I guess a lot of students here would count as winners – there’s a lot of worry about jobs and employment prospects and time spent as an intern. Even with a well paid job, will you afford anywhere to live?” Helen’s aware of the flip side of this too. “There are a lot of young people that haven’t succeeded in the traditional sense, who are stuck in badly paid zero hour contracts, and for who making any process in our society looks very hard and almost impossible.”
“For some people the worries are about where they might live, but for other people it is a question of how they’re going to live – we’ve got a huge polarisation”, she summarises.
I ask her what she would say to students who feel that the NHA is too NHS centric to be relatable. “It’s a really important issue”, she responds, “If we carry on in the direction we’re going, what we’ll have will be a shadow of what the NHS once was. It’s a chance to save and value it. It’s time to vote for what you value.”
She smiles, as she goes on to say, “Unfortunately you will get old, and you will get ill, and you’re going to need the NHS.”