Thousands march to save Lewisham Hospital

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Up to 25,000 marched through Lewisham town centre on Saturday 26 January chanting “no if’s no but’s, no NHS cuts”. Bill Jeffries reports on the campaign to save Lewisham Hospital’s A&E

The closure of the recently modernised Lewisham A&E is threatened because the neighbouring South London NHS trust is effectively bankrupt. This Trust runs Queen Mary’s in Sidcup, the Queen Elizabeth in Woolwich and the Princess Royal University Hospital in Bromley. South London inherited two PFI (private finance initiative) hospitals constructed under the Labour government – their building costs were £210m.

IMG_2260So far the Trust has paid back £531m; £61 million is being paid every year in interest and by 2031, when the payments are due to end, the Trust will have paid £2000m! So no surprise then that the Trust is bankrupt. Nor should it come as any surprise that one of the PFI companies involved, Innisfree, has posted a profit margin of 53% on its PFI investments last year.

To bale out the bankrupt Trust and ensue a continued profit stream for the PFI companies involved, Tory appointed Trust Special Administrator Matthew Kershaw has proposed closing Lewisham A&E and the downgrading the maternity unit, thus boosting patient numbers at Woolwich Hospital A&E several miles away. As money follows patients in the bizarre internal market system in the NHS this, it is hoped, will rescue the South London Trust.

Lewisham A&E currently treats 120,000 patients a year; its maternity unit delivers 4,200 babies. There are other proposed closures to different parts of the hospital. An estimated 60% of its land will be sold off to property developers. Closures and cuts will cost £197 million to eventually “save” just £19 million a year.

The campaign: strengths and weaknesses

This was the second massive march organised by Lewisham Save Our Hospitals, it followed a November demo attended by between 10,000 to 15,000. While the march was large, lively and successful its composition pointed up some of the problems in the campaign.

This was an overwhelmingly community based march. Tens of thousands of users and supporters of the local hospital turned out to protest the threatened closure. There was only a token presence from the trade unions with a handful of TU banners, from UNISON, GMB, Unite and RMT. The numbers on the UNISON contingent, the major union in the threatened hospital, were pitifully small. Unlike the November demonstration there was not an organised workers contingent from the hospital or from neighbouring hospitals which will be effected by the closure, Woolwich or Kings.

This has been an ongoing problem in the Save our Hospital campaign. While the organising meetings have been large and well organised, and much successful work has been put into mobilising in the local community, the campaign’s ability to activate and draw in the workers in the actual hospital affected has been weak.

This is largely the fault of the largest trade union in the Hospital, UNISON. Its health branch has refused to affiliate to the campaign. It voted against the 24th November demonstration. Its branch secretary Mike Davey denounced Save Lewisham Hospital protesters, who had organised a lobby of Matthew Kershaw’s consultation meeting, as a “mob” in a circular sent to every Trust employee. The branch officials have been sending threatening messages to campaign supporters in the hospital and have made it crystal clear that they has no intention, plan or resolve to take any industrial action in defence of the hospital whatsoever.

IMG_2265This, combined with a very low density of TU organisation in the hospital, has meant that hospital workers have not been an organised force. There needs to be both a unionisation drive around the closure threat and a concerted campaign amongst workers to organise for action. Given the role of UNISON, whose branch only organises 10-15% of the workforce at most, another union needs to be built at the hospital and quickly. Unite seems like the obvious choice. They have supported the campaign, donated money to build the demo and are a recognised union in the NHS.

But why join a union? The only way to convince workers to join is by explaining to them why unions are now central to the campaign to stop closure. The community will continue to mobilise in defence of the hospital, but there is a limit to what they can do without the workers in the hospital taking action as well. That means taking industrial action of some form, determined by the hospital workers themselves, that can then act as a focus for support by other workers in the area. If Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was faced with widespread industrial action and community protest across Lewisham and South East London he could be forced to retreat on the closure programme.

IMG_2266Clearly taking industrial action in hospitals, especially A&E’s, poses particular problems – all out strikes would threaten peoples lives. But strike action is possible provided the workers themselves take charge of emergency cover, making sure a service is available for emergencies. And there are numerous other actions that could be taken as well, work to rules, boycotting admin tasks, etc. Given there will be no Lewisham A&E unless the struggle is won any hypocritical charges of putting patients at risk should be thrown back at the people who make them.

The struggle for Lewisham hospital is at a turning point. Unless we can mobilise the workers alongside the community the campaign will lose its momentum.

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