“Fewer beds are a sign of success, not of failure,” claimed health secretary Patricia Hewitt last week, as the growing financial crisis in the NHS continued to create havoc.
As she spoke, furious staff at hospitals in her Leicester constituency were reeling from the news that they face 200 redundancies, and the loss of up to 200 beds and 900 posts.
In addition to the wave of hospital closures and sackings that have spread across Britain, many maternity units have been forced to close their doors to expectant mothers because of a shortage of midwives, a new nationwide study shows.
But there are also signs that the resistance to hospital closures and privatisation can force the government and health authorities into retreats.
A massive 27,000 people marched in Cornwall last September against the planned closure of St Michael’s Hospital in Hayle, and the West Cornwall Hospital in Penzance. Now NHS South West says that the outcry means that the hospitals will stay.
There were also signs that the government’s mania for privatisation may have run into so much opposition that it has been forced into a tactical retreat.
Last week the department of health said that it was going to impose “very tough criteria” on Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) that want to outsource their role as commissioners of health services in the way Hillingdon PCT, in west London, has done.
That could mean a smaller role for private companies in local healthcare than was previously expected. But the general thrust towards privatisation in the NHS continues unabated.
The leaders of health trade unions should seize on the government’s vulnerability as an opportunity to build the biggest possible protests on the TUC’s day of action in defence of the NHS on 3 March.
Unfortunately, in many parts of Britain action is patchy, low level and badly organised. Nevertheless, where local activists and health workers come together, protests that can match the mood for a fightback are being organised.
Campaigners in Preston, Lancashire, are turning widespread anger into action on 3 March. They shocked the bosses of Central Lancashire PCT at a public consultation on Friday of last week by transforming the meeting into a storm of opposition against privatisation.
The trust scheduled the meeting during the daytime in the hope that few would be able to attend. However they had underestimated the strength of feeling. Over 300 people turned up to lambast trust bosses for their proposal to set up a privatised clinical assessment and treatment centre.
At the end of the meeting, local Respect councillor Michael Lavalette, who spoke from the floor, organised a vote on whether the trust should be allowed to privatise health services – the vote was a unanimous no.
Debbie Turner, secretary of Preston health branch Unison, helped organise the protest at the consultation. She says that the planned privatisation will undermine the principles of the NHS.
Debbie told Socialist Worker, “Everybody accepts that sometimes there needs to be change, but our bosses want to hand part of the work that we do to a South African multinational firm.
“It will mean that many workers will no longer have an overview of the patients they care for as the firm will control aspects of patient care.”
Debbie says that campaigners are winning the argument and finding new forces to join the battle.
She said, “Local students from Cardinal Newman College have played a very important role. They brought homemade banners to the meeting that the trust organised and they have been out leafleting everywhere, especially the local pubs.
“The Fire Brigades Union came to the meeting with its branch banner, as did some print workers. We have decided that we are going to hold a march and rally in Preston on 3 March.
“This week we are going to be running stalls dressed as giant bananas – because health privatisation is bananas. We are also going to be leafleting a local children’s fair.
“There is a mood for action among all the health unions. We expect our demonstration to be very big with a lot of health workers being joined by user groups and the general public.”
A similar mood is reported from Enfield in north London.
Councillor Kieran McGregor of the Save Chase Farm Hospital group told Socialist Worker that he predicts the numbers on their 3 March demonstration to be double that of their last protest in December 2005.
He said, “The feeling here is much stronger than a year ago. All the consultations that have taken place have only served to make people even more angry.
“I think we will have thousands on the streets.”
Paul Harper is branch secretary of NHS Logistics Unison and a member of Unison’s health service group executive. His branch has organised a demonstration in Maidstone, Kent.
Paul said, “Two months ago we had a demonstration against proposed cuts in Maidstone hospital that saw 4,000 people take to the streets.
“But the protest was organised by opportunist Tory politicians. This time it is the health service unions that are planning the protest. I believe that we can wrestle the political initiative back.
“In the week before the demonstration, we are going to have a public meeting on the questions of cuts and privatisation. We are going to make the link between the two.”
In east London campaigners are preparing for a rally outside Hackney town hall that will see health workers from Barts and the London NHS Trust join with those from Homerton hospital, the Tower Hamlets and Hackney PCTs and smaller hospitals.
There are just two weeks to go until the day of action. It is vital that health workers and campaigners pull out all the stops to make all the protests as successful as possible.