More than 250 health workers and campaigners attended the Keep Our NHS Public conference in London last Saturday.
Sally Ruane from the Leicestershire Save Our NHS campaign opened the conference by highlighting the threats to the future of the health service.
She spoke about the programme of ‘patchwork privatisation’ which is allowing private companies to take control of parts of the NHS.
Sally said, ‘The interests of the private sector are fundamentally opposed to those of patients and NHS staff. Private firms are accountable only to their shareholders.’ Access to healthcare is increasingly being restricted on the basis of cost.
The government says that in areas where wards and services at local hospitals are being axed, it is because new specialist centres are being developed.
It claims that by concentrating particular services in regional units, patient care will be improved.
Sally disputed this, pointing out that the government bases its assumptions on a report called The Future Hospital, published by the Institute For Public Policy Research.
Sally said, ‘The report made no mention of the two systematic reviews of the evidence. Both concluded that there is no clear evidence that the concentration of services works.’
The question of how campaigners should relate to the health service unions was raised repeatedly during the conference.
There was frustration at the failure of the trade unions to call national or serious regional demonstrations in defence of the NHS.
Many had hoped that such protests would have been the centrepiece of the unions’ day of action over the health service on Saturday 3 March.
Instead most regions of the TUC are planning only token protests.
Some activists argued that inaction by the union leadership meant that Keep Our NHS Public should call its own national demonstration – irrespective of what action the health unions decided to take.
Responding to the argument, John Lister from London Health Emergency said, ‘I fully echo the anger. The union leaders have sold us out.’
But he added, ‘If we want to force the government to back down, we cannot organise a small demonstration that doesn’t match the widespread anger of the public.
‘The 250 people here cannot substitute for the trade union movement. We must plan the best possible regional protests on 3 March in order to carry on putting pressure on the union leaders.’
Bobby Noyes, chair of Southampton health branch of Unison and president of Southampton TUC, argued that activists should use the day of action to mount lively regional protests that would prove that union members wanted national action.
To loud applause, she told the conference how activists in Hampshire were planning a protest outside the new hospital in Lymington, which was built under the Private Finance Initiative. This is the first NHS hospital to be wholly run by a private contractor.
‘Instead of holding a small token protest outside every hospital in Hampshire, we have decided to hold one big one outside this symbol of a privatised NHS,’ she said.
Other speakers discussed the ways in which campaigners could use the new Early Day Motion (EDM) for a moratorium on NHS cuts and closures proposed by Labour leaderhip contender John McDonnell MP.
Activists were urged to pressure their MPs to support the EDM. Those MPs and ministers who campaign against hospital closures in their own constituencies but otherwise back the government’s health cuts would be exposed as hypocrites.
Tony Benn closed the conference. He said, ‘The people don’t want war and they don’t want privatisation.
‘It’s time that we brought all the opposition to New Labour together. Everyone active in defence of the NHS should come to the Stop the War demonstration on Saturday 24 February.’
For more on the camapign go to www.keepourNHSpublic.com
A three-day political festival