The Government has sold a majority holding in Plasma Resources UK, the state-owned enterprise that forms the basis of Britain’s blood plasma supplies, to an American venture capitalist, Bain, for £230m. While it is not clear whether this will affect the blood that is given by millions of donors across the UK, it has certainly appears to triggered a powerful backlash from some potential donors – people who were happy to give blood under the old NHS scheme who are now questioning whether they want to participate in a private sector scheme run for profit.
It’s an important issue, because it raises a big question – about the role of goodwill in a privatised health service. Giving blood is one very practical and familiar way in which people support the public NHS; participation in clinical trials – in which, for cancer at least, Britain has one of the highest levels in the world – is another. A key reason why people are willing to do this is surely because the NHS is seen as a collective institution, one that we own collectively and which works to our benefit. Many people take part in clinical trials of, for example, cancer treatments in the knowledge that it will be after their time that the benefits are felt.
In the case of clinical trials, there are obvious benefits to the patient and the NHS; and it remains the case that a considerable amount of medical research in Britain is funded by charities, whose donors are effectively doing a lot of the legwork for the pharmaceutical industry who will profit handsomely from the approved product. But the motivation for the individual remains altruism – and in a privatised NHS, will that still remain? Will the obvious involvement of profit in the delivery of health care mean that fewer people will give blood, or take part in these trials?
It shows an obvious tension between the marketisation of the NHS and David Cameron’s Big Society. Giving blood and participating in clinical trials is doubtless part of the Big Society – it ticks all the boxes about voluntarism – but privatisation may mean less altruism and higher costs, as healthcare providers are forced to buy in what was once provided as goodwill. Is this really what anyone – apart from those who will profit from the privatisation of the NHS – wants?