Thousands of protesters took to the streets in towns and cities across Britain in defence of the NHS last Saturday.
The day of action was called by the health service trade unions. It united health workers, patients and members of the public in opposition to privatisation and the wave of cuts hitting hospitals and primary care trusts.
Around 1,000 people demonstrated in each of the cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield.
Protests joined by several hundred people took place in many parts of London, and in Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge and Preston.
But the biggest demonstration of the day was in Enfield, north London, where the Chase Farm district general hospital is threatened with “downgrading”.
Organisers there estimate that over 10,000 people from the area joined a march to save the threatened hospital.
Sylvia Rainbow is a nursing sister who has worked at Chase Farm for the last 16 years. She told Socialist Worker what had motivated so many people to attend.
Lining the pockets
Sylvia said, “People’s lives are threatened by the proposal to get rid of the A&E, children’s and maternity wards at Chase Farm.
“No one can deny money has been spent on the NHS under this government.
“But it all seems to be lining the pockets of the private companies moving into the health service and the managers that administer the internal market.”
Steven Neal was among many young people who joined the march.
“I would normally be playing rugby on a Saturday,” he said. “But Chase Farm is where I go to get patched up when I’m injured, so I’m determined we should save the A&E department.”
Around 1,000 people joined the Manchester demonstration.
The protest was initiated by Manchester community health Unison following their recent successful strike. It brought nurses, midwives, doctors and many other health workers together with
The demonstration was lively and confident. Many marchers wore the red and white T-shirts brought from the mental health workers’ picket lines.
Even the police got carried away with the spirit of the day and suggested extending the march a few extra streets before returning to Albert Square.
Amanda, a student midwife who has seen the number of potential jobs shrink while she has been at Salford university, said, “They’re closing maternity units all over and there’s a shortage of 10,000 midwives.
“That means a worse service for women.”
In Sheffield 1,000 people, mostly local health workers, joined a march and rally in the city centre.
Workers at the Children’s Hospital lined the road to watch the lively march start off into the city centre. Services there are among those threatened by cuts.
Speakers included TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, who said that he “hopes that Tony Blair is listening” to the rally.
Four Sheffield midwives brought their own banner. One, Heidi Caldwell, said there was widespread demoralisation at staff shortages and many senior staff were leaving.
She said, “At busy times three mums might be looked after by one midwife. It should be one-to-one.”
Ann Fellows, a domestic at the Northern General Hospital in the city, is an activist in the Unison union.
She said, “We’re told that there won’t be any compulsory redundancies as part of the cost-cutting. They’ll try to save money through voluntary redundancies and retirement.
“What happens if we haven’t saved enough by year three? Then there will be compulsory redundancies.
“With the 1.9 percent pay rise and my rent going up by 5 percent, we are definitely going to be looking for industrial action.”
Almost 500 people turned out in Preston where proposals to allow the multinational Netcare UK to run a clinic for the NHS has generated huge anger.
Janet Howarth, branch secretary of Chorley Unison, said, “Thousands of people have already voiced their opposition to Netcare in meetings right across Lancashire.
“Public pressure has forced them to water down some of their proposals.
“In Chorley, health bosses are now offering a choice between the NHS and Netcare. This is a victory for people power, but the fight does not stop here. We need to keep the pressure up.”
Proposing to close
The rally in Birmingham brought together up to 1,000 protesters from across the East and West Midlands.
All the health unions were represented on the protest and there was support from patients, community activists and user groups.
Chris Richards, branch secretary of the City Hospital branch of Unison, told Socialist Worker, “Last year they cut 800 posts at our hospital.
“Now they are proposing to close another five wards with the loss of 150 jobs.
“They are saying that there will be no compulsory redundancies, but there are no spare posts after last year’s cuts.”
In Oxford more than 500 joined a demonstration through the city that was led by a man on stilts, a samba band and people carrying three giant inflatable bananas – because health privatisation is bananas.
Health workers joined council carers, printers, civil service workers, car workers, pensioners and students.
On the 600-strong march in Bristol, health workers and the public united in anger in a week in which it was announced that Bristol would lose one of its major hospitals.
In Cambridge 120 delegates came to an NHS Together conference which unanimously passed a motion calling on the health trade unions to call a national demonstration in defence of the NHS.
A march of 350 people followed, ending in a rally in the Market Square.
Mike Gough from the Save Hinchingbrooke hospital campaign spoke about the anger in Huntingdon after the announcement last month that a quarter of all services at the hospital are to be axed.
He said, “The trust have made it very clear that they want to hand the hospital over to the private sector in two years’ time.
“However, we are going to carry on the campaign and hold another demonstration on 17 March.”
In Leeds, where 150 people rallied, a Not For Sale sign was hung over the entrance to Leeds General Infirmary.
Mike Blackwell, a biomedical scientist who works at the hospital, told Socialist Worker that pressure is mounting on NHS staff.
“We are being asked to do more work with less staff and as a result the service we provide is on the verge of collapse,” he said.
Catherine White, a student nurse who has just finished a three year training course, explained that she had just applied for a job in a banking call centre because there are no vacancies for nurses in Leeds.
The Yorkshire Evening Post newspaper reported last week that 98 percent of Leeds University student nurses were in the same position.
Money for war
There were also marches and rallies involving several hundred people at the St Helier hospital in south London, in Woking and in Hackney, east London.
There were protests of around a hundred in Lymington, Maidstone and Brighton.
Some 25 union activists also climbed Skiddaw mountain in the Lake District in order to unfurl a banner in defence of the NHS.
Many who protested on Saturday felt strongly that there needed to be a national protest to unite all the local campaigns.
Dr Barrett, a cancer research scientist on the Chase Farm march, said, “The government has plenty of money for war but when it comes to health, the money is being diverted into privatised services.
“Today’s protest has been a symbol, a visible symbol of the growing opposition to those policies. Now we should take the fight to central government.”
It is vital that activists in the Unison union pile pressure upon their leaders to name a date for the national demonstration agreed by the union’s health executive to give a focus to the growing anger over the NHS.
Thanks to David Swanson (Manchester), Julia Armstrong (Sheffield), Jenny Wilkinson (Preston), Becca Kirkpatrick (Birmingham), Mark Ladbrooke (Oxford), Tom Woodcock (Cambridge), Christian Hogsbjerg (Leeds), Nic Watts (Skiddaw) and everyone who sent in reports and pictures – including those we were unable to publish for lack of space