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Issue #1582      February 20, 2013

Fighting to save our hospitals

BRITAIN: Last week saw action across the capital to defend London hospitals from the crippling effects of government-imposed cuts. Events kicked off with the parliamentary launch of Defend London’s NHS – an unprecedented coalition of MPs, unions, campaigners, patients, doctors and other health workers.

The campaign brought together activists from Lewisham, Ealing, Charing Cross, Hammersmith, Central Middlesex, Whittington and Kingston who are battling to save their accident and emergency departments, maternity units and in-hospital care from the government’s savage cost-cutting.

In recent months tens of thousands of Londoners have taken to the streets in various protests against the cutbacks, most prominently in Lewisham where two huge demos in December and January saw almost 50,000 marching to save the hospital’s Accident and Emergency department. But Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt ignored the masses and said Lewisham’s A&E department would be downgraded and its maternity unit replaced by a midwife-led facility.

The decision effectively means that the successful Lewisham hospital is being sacrificed to bail out neighbouring South London Healthcare Trust, which has crippling private finance initiative (PFI) debts.

As a result Lewisham’s downgraded A&E will no longer be fit to serve patients with more serious conditions, who will have to travel half an hour to the next nearest hospital. Even some Tories are on the side of the campaigners with this one.

In a recent debate in Parliament when Hunt announced his decision, Beckenham MP Bob Stewart said: “I do actually find it rather strange that a successful hospital is being slashed when other hospitals have been saved.”

And Conservative Enfield North MP Nick de Bois added: “You recognise that Lewisham is the victim of failed PFI and failed finance not of its making.”

As part of the newly launched Defend London’s NHS week of action, campaigners held a rally outside Lewisham hospital in protest against Hunt’s decision. They also joined Ealing campaigners to hand in “We Love Our NHS” Valentine’s cards to the Department of Health.

The “justification” for health cuts probably doesn’t get any more patronising than NHS North West London’s Shaping A Healthier Future consultation, which asked residents to choose between option A, B or C with the consequence seeing the closure of four A&E departments, downgrading their hospitals into “local” trusts.

Preferred option A would see the A&Es at West Middlesex University and Chelsea and Westminster Trusts kept open but the closure of those at four other hospitals – Charing Cross, Ealing, Hammersmith and Central Middlesex.

NHS North West London is due to make its final decision on February 19. In the meantime Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s spin doctors have put out a press release stating that Charing Cross A&E has been “saved” from closure. In reality it will be downgraded in the same way as Lewisham’s.

Labour MP for Hammersmith Andy Slaughter told the Star at the Defend London’s NHS launch: “This is a particularly cynical move from the council. To get everyone’s hopes up by saying that their A&E has been saved and then including what they’re really doing in the small print.”

In protest at NHS NWL campaigners organised two simultaneous rallies in Hammersmith and Ealing. Other demonstrations include at Kingston against NHS South West London’s plans to close two out of five A&Es and maternity units serving the area.

Earlier in the week on Tuesday night Methodist Hall in Archway, north London, was crammed to the doors with hundreds of patients, campaigners and politicians livid at plans by the board of Whittington Hospital to sell off £17 million worth of buildings at its north site to private companies, with dire consequence for staff and the provision of care.

They wiped the floor with the hospital’s chairman Joe Liddane after he attempted to explain away the plans to the public meeting that included chairwoman of Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition Shirley Franklin, Jeremy Corbyn MP and outspoken author Owen Jones.

This positive first step to link up campaigns across London shows the urgency for such a campaign to be replicated on a national level to highlight the extent to which hospital boards, councils and politicians will go to fool the general public.

But while Save Our Hospitals chairman Carlos Nero says campaigners are doing their “utmost” to launch a national defend our NHS campaign, Health Emergency director John Lister says it has been problematic historically.

“It’s difficult because what matters most to the general public is the hospital down the road from them, their local hospital,” says Lister. “This means it has always been hard to co-ordinate campaigners in the north to join up with events that only affect those in the south.

“Even in London where the boundaries are more blurred, it has proved to be a challenge that hasn’t been achieved for many years, so this is an encouraging development. I’m sure a national NHS campaign can be done.”

If the government continues to bulldoze through massive NHS cuts while rubberstamping more plans to privatise services then it will no longer be a question of can but must.

Morning Star  

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