The crisis in the NHS becomes more urgent every week. Now James Johnson, head of the British Medical Association, has warned that the competitive market introduced by health secretary Patricia Hewitt is ruining the service.
He says that there is only one year left in which to stop privatisation from wrecking the NHS.
The hospital and ward closures brought about by the funding crisis in many health authorities is putting pressure on the government.
Even ministers are opposing closures – but only when they occur in their own constituencies. Health workers at Manchester’s mental health and social care trust have decided against placing their future in such unreliable hands.
Faced with the loss of 33 nurses, six and a half occupational therapist posts and 12 support workers, they are balloting for strike action.
“We had a meeting of stewards and activists last week where we outlined a strategy of a one-day strike to be followed by a one-week strike,” said Karen Reissmann, chair of the local Unison union branch.
“We decided that we had to take a hard line from the beginning. I’ve spent the past week explaining the battle plan to section meetings. At first people are nervous about the prospect of a whole week of strike action.
“But when I explain that we have to show management that we are serious, and that recent one-day strikes have not been very successful, most people agree.”
This tough line is already getting results. Alongside Unison, the Royal College of Nursing indicated last week that it is prepared to ballot its members in the trust.
Management have asked Unison if they are willing to take the dispute to arbitration. The health union responded by saying that if the cuts were withdrawn, it would be happy to talk.
“I expect an overwhelming yes vote in our ballot,” said Karen. “People understand that what is happening to us is happening everywhere and that someone has to make a stand.”
In the south east of England campaigners in Cambridgeshire are working flat out for a demonstration on Saturday 17 February to defend Hinchingbrooke hospital in Huntingdon.
Bosses have earmarked the A&E and the maternity units at the hospital for closure.
Some midwives have been told that they can expect to be downgraded and that their pay could fall by £5,000 a year.
“In this area the Tories have been trying to jump on the bandwagon of our campaign,” Mike Gough, branch secretary of Unison at Hinchingbrooke, told Socialist Worker.
“They are hypocrites. We know that their policies on the NHS are identical to New Labour’s and that is why we want as many trade unionists as possible on the march. We need to say that the NHS must remain a public service.”
Hinchingbrooke’s patients will be redirected to the Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, over 20 miles away.
“That will put an intolerable strain on us here at Addenbrooke’s. We are already past bursting point,” said Martin Booth of Cambridge Health Unison.
“It’s another reason why we are planning to send a big delegation to the demonstration in Huntingdon.”
Homerton hospital in Hackney, east London, is also suffering savage cuts.
Since Christmas ten maternity beds have been lost. Many posts at the hospital are frozen – staff that leave are not being replaced, and sickness cover is being rationed. Some wards have only one qualified nurse on duty at night.
A number of “money saving initiatives” have been introduced, including food rationing. The amount of bread and milk that is kept on the wards has been reduced to cut costs.
Highly trained nurses on diabetic wards are having to run to other wards to borrow bread for patients when their blood sugar levels drop.
A campaign against the cuts at the hospital is gathering pace. Sharon Brown, joint branch secretary of the Unison branch, said, “Over the last few weeks we have been explaining what is at stake to local community and trade union groups.
“We’ve got support from the local government Unison branch, Hackney Teachers’ Association and the local pensioners’ convention. The public are overwhelmingly behind us.
“Mobilising other trade unionists is particularly important. Within the hospital some staff are active in the campaign, but others are scared.
“They worry that their wards could be hit next, and so they keep their heads down. The more support they see outside, the braver they will be.”
Bosses at the Yorkshire Ambulance Service have been forced to withdraw 400 redundancy notices issued to administration and support workers before Christmas.
The T&G, Unison and GMB unions have forced management to agree to discussions over restructuring.
Keep Our NHS Public campaigners conference
This Saturday 20 January in London. To register send delegates’ names to [email protected] or phone 01273 234 822. £5 per person.