The Hampshire village of Lyndhurst in the New Forest has a population of 3,060. But on Monday of this week over 2,000 people demonstrated there to fight hospital bed cuts.
The Lincolnshire town of Stamford — population 18,000 — saw 5,000 people march through the town centre last Saturday to save a local hospital.
The next day in Frenchay, Bristol, a campaigning picnic and march to save the local hospital attracted about 300 local campaigners and health workers.
Campaigns to save local hospitals are springing up as the NHS faces a £1.6 billion funding crisis.
Two weeks ago John Lister of campaign group Health Emergency pointed to the massive deficits faced by NHS trusts. John told Socialist Worker, “Labour stuck to Tory spending levels for their first three years in office. Every million put into the NHS since then has come with strings attached and penalties if targets are not met.”
New rules mean that trusts have to balance their books by spring next year. And, says John, “Gordon Brown has prevented them from using money in their capital budgets for other purposes.”
The huge protest in Stamford last weekend was triggered by the attempts of Peterborough and Stamford hospitals trust to close a ward at the local hospital.
George Gough who is leading the protests told Socialist Worker, “They are trying to close this hospital because the trust is £7 million in debt.”
He added that the trust was trying to “run the hospital down” by cutting beds and staff, eventually centralising services in Peterborough.
“But after 6pm there are no local buses or trains,” says George. “A woman who had heart trouble recently had to take a taxi to Peterborough. She had to pay £80.”
George has collected over 26,000 names on his petition against the closure and has even stayed overnight in closed wards at the hospital as part of the campaign.
The financial crisis faced by Peterborough and Stamford hospitals is particularly damning for New Labour.
The trust is one of the government’s flagship “foundation trusts”.
Foundation trusts have greater independence from the NHS and are encouraged to act like businesses.
John Lister says, “The Peterborough and Stamford trust had the view that they would be quids in as a foundation trust. But their sums have gone badly wrong.”
North Bristol is another trust in financial crisis. It is £20 million in the red. Recently it announced plans to shut the Frenchay hospital, consolidating its acute services on its Southmead site.
Other services would be provided “in the community”. Campaigners believe that private companies will be encouraged to run these services.
Under the plan the Southmead hospital would be rebuilt as a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) hospital, with private companies brought in to run services. Gwyneth Powell-Davies, chair of Bristol Health Services branch of the Amicus union, attended last Sunday’s march in Frenchay.
She told Socialist Worker, “The big picture is of a rundown of directly NHS managed services to make way for the private sector.”
The government is more interested in its free market schemes than in providing the money the NHS needs. “The main reason for the difficulties we face is lack of funding,” says Gwyneth. “Increasingly extra funding is channelled into the hands of private companies.”
Many of the primary care trusts that commission health care are also in crisis.
The giant march through Lyndhurst on Monday came in response to the New Forest primary care trust’s plans to cut beds at five community hospitals across the area. The trust has accumulated a £19 million deficit.
The New Forest campaign is typical of many of those springing up around the country, often in small towns and villages. Liberal Democrat and Tory MPs joined the Lyndhurst march, along with Lady Belinda Montagu of the Beaulieu and other notables.
It is vital that trade union members and Respect supporters are centrally involved in campaigns like these.
They can make the connection between hospital closures and New Labour’s neo-liberal drive.
And they can connect the justified public anger at attacks on services with the strength of the unions to fight back.
They can also connect the financial crisis in the NHS with the millions pumped into the war on Iraq.
For more on the fight to save the NHS go to the new website: www.keepournhspublic.com