Thousands marched through the Surrey town of Epsom last Saturday to protest against attempts to downgrade the local hospital.
Epsom General Hospital has already shut down its emergency surgery service, and protesters believe that the next step will be to shut down maternity and paediatric services at the site.
The cuts in services come alongside other panic measures, such as asking staff to empty their own bins and serving “lighter” meals to patients, and are part of an attempt to claw back £20 million in savings over two years.
Unlike other trusts, the Epsom and St Helier Trust is not in debt, but has been asked to make sweeping budget cuts.
Across the country, small local hospitals are being shut and patients are forced to travel large distances.
Often this is taking place in traditional Tory rural and suburban areas, and there is evidence that Labour is deliberately shielding its marginal constituencies from any closures.
Last Saturday’s protest was, led by a local Tory MP.
But it also had a strong element of trade union involvement - clearly shown by the number of union banners and placards.
Kevin O’Brien, the Unison union branch secretary for the hospital, led a large delegation of health workers. He said that consultancy firm KPMG had been brought in to propose cuts in the trust.
“They will make another £5 million cuts this year, £10 million next,” he said. “I think we are going to hear about redundancies and I envisage that we will be looking to take industrial action.”
Let’s see if the Tories heading the march back strikes
The cuts seem perplexing at a time when the government claims unprecedented money is pouring into the NHS.
But for Kevin, and many others around the country, the reason for the contradiction is becoming increasingly clear. He said, “The money is being squandered. They are using the idea of money following the patient as an excuse.”
A huge paper trail of “transaction costs” sucks money out of the health service. Private treatment centres and private finance initiatives hand chunks of the budget over to corporate shareholders.
Then the government sends in hit squads led by consultants such as KPMG, wasting even more money.
The deadly nature of the resulting cuts was clear to many on the Epsom demonstration. Rae Chorlton is a wheelchair user, as is her husband, Del. Rae said, “My husband is dying of cancer. He needs constant oxygen.
“If there is an emergency I need to go to this hospital. It’s a long way to the next hospital, he could die.”
Like most of those who marched, Rae and Del had never been on a protest before.
Nancy, another first time protester, works at the hospital. She attended the protest carrying a homemade placard, accompanied by her colleagues.
She said, “I work in trauma services, so my job will be directly affected by the cuts. The NHS appears to be in crisis.”
As the workers and residents surged through the streets, spilling onto the road, the police were taken aback by the turnout.
They desperately and vainly tried to keep protesters on the pavements.
Motorists hooted in support of the protest, sending cheers through the crowd.
Dr Ted Bailey is a local resident in Epsom. He said, “It’s a long time since I’ve been on a demo. I’m a respectable lecturer now.
“But I’m outraged at how hospitals are being treated. The government claims it is putting money into the NHS, but where’s the evidence?”
Morris Sharpe, from the Merton branch of the NUT teachers’ union, said, “We decided to come along and support the protest. Campaigns such as these should be supported by the trade union movement.”
Comparing the attacks on health to those he was witnessing on schools, he added, “The attacks of this government are going further than those of the Tories.”
Geoff Martin, campaign officer from pressure group Health Emergency, played a key role in organising the protest.
Geoff was born in the hospital maternity ward, where he received life-saving treatment.
He told a rally at the end of the march, “If there was a road traffic accident today, they would not be able to take the patients to Epsom. They are playing games with people’s lives.”
Up to 4,000 people marched through the Oxfordshire market town of Banbury on the evening of Friday of last week.
They were protesting against plans to cut maternity and paediatric services at local Horton Hospital.
In a reference to the nursery rhyme, “Ride A Cock Horse to Banbury Cross”, protesters had planned to take a horse on the march.
However, the police raised safety concerns, blocking the horse proposal. A man in fancy dress rode a mock horse instead.