Lewisham Hospital campaign - a turning point in fight against NHS cuts?

Author: 
A Lewisham health worker

On Thursday 8 November a meeting was held in the grounds of Lewisham Hospital about the campaign to prevent the cuts proposed by the 'Trust Special Administrator'. The proposals include shutting the A&E, maternity services, and complex and emergency surgery. In reality this would lead to much of the supportive services such as acute medical admissions and ITU being shut as well, and much of the hospital services and site would be shut down.

The meeting room overflowed into two additional rooms where video link ups were used to involve as many people as possible, though some of the hundreds that came were unable to get into any of the rooms. Maybe a thousand people from Lewisham and south London had come to attend the meeting. There were a large number of speakers on the platform, but despite this there was also plenty of time for debate from the floor.

The huge numbers who want to get involved in the campaign, may indicate, along with the big campaign in Ealing and Hammersmith, a chance to develop a much stronger fight against the government on the NHS.

The local Labour MP Heidi Alexander spoke as well as the Labour mayor Steve Bullock. While they both firmly condemned the proposals, with Steve Bullock saying he would use the resources of the council to defeat the plans, they both laid the blame at the feet of neighbouring Trusts, in particular the South London Health Trust (with the implied idea that people elsewhere in south London should bear the brunt of the cuts). Neither made any comment on the fact that it is the PFI schemes that have led to the 'overspends', a scheme that was introduced by the Labour government.

The Unison branch secretary was also on the platform, and emphasised the need to ensure that we get the facts right in our arguments against the proposals. Unison was not officially supporting the meeting and has so far declined to support the planned demonstration. He cautioned against demonstrating by lying in front of bulldozers.

Most of the other platform speakers, and many of the speakers from the floor emphasised the need to work together with the South London Trust and with other campaigns around the NHS. A speaker was there from the Ealing A&E campaign, and it was recognised by most people there that this is a fight to preserve the NHS as a whole. This is the first time that the government have put an NHS Trust into 'administration' and the struggle against this administrator will help determine whether this is a tactic that can be used against other NHS Trusts around the country.

There were large numbers of staff attending the meeting, with nurses a midwife, and several doctors speaking from the floor. The campaign was partly formed by the Lewisham branch of the BMA, and the demonstration is supported by the GMB and Unite. A Unite official made a useful contribution, but otherwise there was little mention of the role of unions in the meeting.

While there has been a big effort by the organisers of the meeting to advertise it, the huge turnout was mostly due to the strength of feeling among Lewisham residents and staff. The hospital is an important part of the community, and most speakers had a story to tell about the services there family had received there. The meeting was a great start to the campaign, several other meetings and events have been planned. The campaign in Ealing was an inspiration to those in Lewisham, but to ensure success campaigners will need to guard against divisive attitudes that would seek to pitch Lewisham against neighbouring Trusts.

Just a few years ago the region was asked to consider which A&E should be closed under the consultation 'Picture of Health', which resulted, in 2009 in the formation of the South London NHS Trust, and the closure of the A&E at St Mary's hospital in Sidcup. This, of course put pressure on the surrounding hospitals, and the Lewisham A&E frequently had standing room only in their waiting rooms as a result.

The current A&E at Lewisham was recently refurbished, and only opened six months ago. If the adminstrator were somehow persuaded to close a different A&E, it would still result in a worse service for the people of Lewisham, as there would be additional pressure to services there. More importantly it would be another victory for a government hell bent on destroying the NHS, service by service and Trust by Trust. Everyone deserves the best healthcare that medical knowledge can provide, regardless of where they live or what they earn!

The neighbouring Save Our London Hospitals (which was set up to campaign for the hospitals in the South London Trust) mobilised to campaign for the Lewisham meeting, these links and a recognition that this is an attack of the whole of the NHS needs to be maintained. To do this the campaign must be led by community activists, and if possible by rank and file union members. Union members will have to increase the pressure on the bureacracy of their unions to get real support from the unions. This is already having some effect but must be continued.

A demonstration against the cuts in Lewisham Hospital will be held on the 24 November. The demonstration start at Loampit Vale roundabout (next to Lewisham DLR/railway station) at 2pm and reach Lewisham hospital at 3pm, followed by a link hands around the building.

A Trust workers’ activist group has been set up to work alongside the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign.

The group plans to build for support among staff using a bulletin and petition and email list.

Lewisham Trust Unison branch is now supporting the demonstration on 24 November.

For more dates and information, see here.