With as many as 25,000 people marching, the Saturday 26 January demonstration in Lewisham was the biggest local demonstration in defence of the NHS and against hospital closures in British history.
As Trusts across the country face massive unaffordable loan repayments through PFI agreements, Lewisham Hospital and the South London Health Trust (SLHT) has become a test case for the government. Each year, SLHT (of which Lewisham Hospital is not a part) pays out £69 million in PFI repayments and slips a further £65 million into debt. Matthew Kershaw, The Trust Special Administrator, recommends Lewisham Hospital close its A & E and Maternity Unit and sell off 60% of its land to help resolve SLHT’s financial crisis.
The far more simple and just solution would be to cancel all PFI debts. Take all hospitals and health trusts saddled with these outrageously unjust debts out of hock to the rich.
25,000 people marching in Lewisham is a signal to the government that this kind of opposition could be mobilised across the country to save the NHS. It’s a signal that NHS could well be the issue that turns the tide, that breaks the resignation and passivity, that builds the confidence of workers everywhere to say stop the cuts, stop the closures, stop the job losses. Make the rich pay!
But 25,000 people have not gathered and marched spontaneously.
To mobilise them, 130,000 leaflets were produced and distributed in an organised way mainly across the borough, but also in neighbouring boroughs and beyond around other parts of London.
Saturday’s magnificent march was built through other actions the campaign has organised — the march back in November 2012 with more than 10,000 people; the vigil outside the hospital on the coldest night of the year with 300 people protesting; the 300 strong protest outside Goldsmiths College earlier in January when the BBC filmed Question Time; the double decker bus that travelled around neighbouring boroughs of the South London Health Trust mobilising support and showing solidarity; the flash mob of mums and children born in Lewisham Hospital protesting outside the Ministry of Health; all of this, and other actions too, are what built the 25,000 strong demonstration last week. We have to continue to do this if we are fight and win.
Jeremy Hunt will announce his decision either on Thursday 31 January or Tuesday 5 February. The campaign is calling for people to converge on Lewisham Hospital at 6pm on the day of the announcement. We want as many people as possible outside the hospital regardless of what Hunt decides.
The rumour is Hunt will put off making the decision in favour of a London-wide NHS consultation that will recommend reconfiguring services across the capital.
If the Kershaw’s “consultation report” cost £5–6 million, a London-wide consultation is set to cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds and will no doubt come up with a longer list of hospitals that should close and services that should be cut.
The mood in the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign is one for continuing the fight regardless of whether Hunt gives us some kind of reprieve or not.
So far the Lewisham campaign is very much community-based. Where it is weak is amongst the hospital workers themselves. However, last week there was a significant step forward when more than 40 hospital workers attended a meeting and discussed, amongst other things, the positions of the hospital workers’ unions and building the campaign within the hospital.
The next stage of the fight to save the hospital will need to involve hospital workers in much greater numbers. Industrial action of some kind will be essential. Winning the arguments for a work-in — i.e. running the hospital in the interests of the patients, community, and staff — is not only a real possibility but a necessity if we are to turn the tide and push back the government’s agenda for the NHS.
The national trade unions and the TUC should take confidence from the 25,000 strong local demonstration in Lewisham. They should call, and throw their might behind building, a national demonstration in defence of the NHS and for the cancellation of all PFI debts.
This, as part of a national campaign of action, could be the spark that starts a fire to win back what we’ve had robbed from us and more besides, and to make the rich pay to save our health service as we have paid to bail out the banks so far.