The plan to close maternity, A&E and other services at Lewisham Hospital, and to dissolve the South London Healthcare Trust, is a test case for the government in its plans to dismantle the National Health Service.
If the Tories are able in south London to get away with dissolving entire local trusts, reallocating essential services to other trusts or putting them out to tender for private companies, as well as shutting large sections of a heavily-relied-upon local hospital, they will feel able to carry out similar attacks elsewhere.
The Trust Special Administrator Matthew Kershaw admitted in his final report that there is 96% opposition to closure, but he plans to carry on regardless. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will make the final decision on the fate of SLHT and Lewisham Hospital on 1 February.
The issue is a test case for us — the working-class movement — too. The demonstration to save Lewisham Hospital on Saturday 24 November 2012 was an immense outpouring of working-class community anger at the destruction of our public services by the Tory government.
15,000 people came out to march, an unprecedentedly high number for a local anti-cuts struggle in recent times. The demonstration on Saturday 26 January could be just as big.
The community campaign in Lewisham has in many ways been a model for resistance to cuts, building a vibrant campaign with regular meetings and a visible presence in the local community. Meetings and demonstrations have drawn in working-class people not previously engaged in politics who have been mobilised for the first time.
But there has been a key missing ingredient — organisation and action by workers at the hospital itself, and healthworkers more widely in the area.
The Unison branch at the hospital has played a poor role, with branch officials counselling workers against getting involved in campaigns led by “extremists” and “troublemakers”.
Health unions nationally have done little more than posture in response to the existential threat posed to the NHS by the Tories. There have been no national demonstrations (apart from a tame lobby of Parliament headed up by Unite in March 2012) and no plans whatsoever for strikes. It is certainly harder to mobilise for industrial action amongst workers who have immediate duties of care to sick people, but the gravity of the situation requires an extreme response. A discussion about how healthworkers might take effective industrial action without needlessly endangering the lives of patients has not even been had.
On the continent, Spanish and Greek healthworkers have repeatedly struck and occupied in opposition to health cuts and hospital closures. But while the Tories attempt to wipe out the single greatest concession won by the working class in Britain, the leaders of our movement have done nothing.
After the demonstration on 26 January, the community campaign in Lewisham must continue to grow. But it must be accompanied with renewed attempts at independent rank-and-file organisation by healthworkers — independent of conservative, bureaucratic union officials — which seeks to develop strategies for action.
It will take several years (and an estimated £195 million) to run down and close services at Lewisham Hospital and for the full effects of these plans to be realised. Workers should organise in that time for work-ins and occupations.
We cannot let the Tories rob us of our right to healthcare.
Multiple assault on NW London A&E
NHS campaigners in north west London are preparing to defend A&E departments at several hospitals, as the North West London Hospitals Trust seeks to make cuts.
After running a very flawed consultation, the Trust’s “Shaping a Healthier Future” plan could see A&E departments closing at: Charing Cross; Ealing; Hammersmith; and Park Royal (Central Middlesex).
Patients would be forced to travel further to what would become strained A&E departments at the designated “major” hospitals: Hillingdon; St Mary’s (Paddington); West Middlesex (Isleworth); Northwick Park (Harrow); and Chelsea and Westminster (Fulham Road).
There are local campaigns around most of the hospitals affected, but we need coordination between them, since resistance is patchy across the region.
Ealing Council (Labour) is heavily backing the campaign to save the A&E at Ealing Hospital, and plan a fresh protest on 9 February before NHS NW London make their final decision. The protest will be part of a “Week of Action to Defend London’s NHS” from 9-16 February.
That contrasts with the response of, e.g., Brent Council, also Labour, to the planned closure of A&E at their local hospital, Central Middlesex. They have responded relatively feebly to the proposed cut to the unit which had a £62 million rebuild just six years ago.
Local union and community campaigners did organise a successful march last summer and will hold a candle-lit vigil outside the hospital in the evening on 9 February. But the local paper reports a new campaign - “Choose Well” - by the local health NHS Brent Clinical Commissioning Group which aims to divert patients from approaching A&E with healthcare worries and seek help instead from the local pharmacist.
In ordinary times such advice might be sensible, but campaigners should insist that patients need the option of attending a local A&E whenever they are in doubt about the severity of a condition or when they have an accident.
That choice is currently being taken away from us!