UP TO 100,000 health workers, trade unionists, students and youth marched through London to defend the NHS on Saturday.
There were balloons from Unison, Unite, PCS and GMB on the march, along with thousands of placards, as well as banners from local campaigns. The Workers Revolutionary Party and Young Socialists banner gave a lead to the whole march. It said: ‘Defend the NHS! Smash the STPs! Trade Unions must occupy! TUC Call a General Strike to Defend the NHS!’ The West London Council of Action banner called for a policy of occupying to stop the closure of Ealing Hospital.
The contingents following these two banners shouted throughout the march: ‘Defend maternity services, Defend children’s services, Defend A&Es – Occupy! Defend the NHS – Trades unions must act! TUC defend the NHS – Call a general strike! No privatisation – Kick this government out! Reopen maternity – Save Ealing Hospital! Trades unions must act! Slash Trash and Privatise – Smash the STPs!’
At the front of the march was the People’s Assembly banner saying: ‘Save Our NHS. No Closures. No Privatisation.’ It said nothing about getting rid of the Tories! It was held by uniformed doctors and nurses as well as Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, Mark Serwotka General Secretary of PCS and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
The next banner: ‘Upper Colne Valley said: Get Your Hands Off Our A&E. HANDS OFF HUDDERSFIELD ROYAL INFIRMARY’ was followed by a large contingent of 150 campaigners all in blue t-shirts.
As the march assembled Adella Harbar from Feltham, near Heathrow told News Line: ‘I’m passionate about saving the NHS. It was created for the people – young, old, rich or poor, but it’s being taken away and privatised. I don’t like Branson taking over great chunks. I’m 100% in favour of occupying to stop closures. Her friend Patsy Sorenti said: ‘It is despicable that they are closing Ealing and Ashford hospitals. Today must be the start of a general strike to defend the NHS and occupy to save all facilities.’
Laura Abbott, BMA, Croydon, said: ‘This is a ticking time bomb for a full general strike. The NHS has kept everyone alive and well based on need and must be saved.’ Eileen Mahony, NUT, Sydenham, said: ‘We have to stop the privatisation of the NHS and education. I’m here also to defend the right to strike, which is being eroded along with everything else. I think the TUC should call a general strike.’
Chris Shaw said: ‘We’ve come from Grantham. We are fighting to save our hospital. They closed our A&E overnight in August. They said it was a temporary closure for three months due to a shortage of doctors. But it’s gone on now for six months. They’ve moved our doctors to Lincoln to keep that open. They have slowly shut our hospital down by the back door over 20 years, not just the Tories, Labour was doing it before.’
Chris’s wife Kate, an RCN member, said: ‘They seem determined to close it. It’s a proper District General Hospital, serving more than the town, it serves the whole county. I’m a nurse and I’ve got a lot of friends who’ve been told they can’t do or say anything and it’s wrong. Strike action and occupations are what’s needed.’
Geraldine Howarth, Liverpool NUT, said: ‘We want the NHS to be saved. For the everyday person it will be horrific if we allow the NHS to go. A general strike is a fantastic idea. That’s what we need.’
Lesley Mahmood, from the Save Liverpool Women’s Hospital Campaign said: ‘The hospital is still up and running but it’s facing closure and being moved to a different site. We believe if it gets moved it will result in a loss of beds, jobs and services. The consultation closes in September and from then on we fear closure. We would then organise a ring of steel around the hospital to keep it open.’
Holding a ‘Hands off our A&E’ banner, Huddersfield Royal Infirmary (HRI) campaigner Steve Goldman said: ‘The CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) did a consultation and ignored what everyone said. They plan to close Huddersfield A&E and transfer it to Halifax. There is a great deal of anger. We would occupy.’
Cheryl Burns said: ‘I’m just an ordinary housewife. Our campaign is called Hands of HRI. 150 of us came down today on three coaches. We’re fighting along with dozens of hospitals being closed all over the country and along with the STPs that are coming in. It’s a frightening thing for the whole country. I’m behind all the NHS staff. I supported the junior doctors and I would support a general strike.’
One of the first speakers at the rally at the end of the march in Parliament Square was Jackie Berry, an intensive care (IC) nurse and a Unison NEC member. She said: ‘As an IC nurse we provide life-saving support for the sickest of the sick and are only too aware every day of our lives how important the NHS is.
‘The STPs are to dismantle the NHS, but we insist there must be no cuts, no closures, no privatisation, an end to pay restraint and a fully funded NHS. The NHS was built on socialist principles. On Wednesday NHS workers will hear their pay offer. Over several years of pay freeze we are now 14% worse off. If we are served up with another measly 1% we want a ballot for co-ordinated action. Today is the start of a battle to defend our NHS. Let’s make May Day a day of action to defend our NHS across the community.’
Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey said: ‘My mum told me what it was like in the 1930s without an NHS. It is our heritage and our duty to pass on the health service to future generations. Our message to the private health companies is a rude keep out! Our message to the Tories is, you bailed out the banks, now bail out the NHS.’
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘Today frightens the life out of the Tories. We’ve got the faith, we’ve got the fight, we’re up for it, we’re going to defend our NHS. The Tories cut taxes for the fat cats. The money is there if you collect the taxes. Think for a moment, how terrible it is that student nurses are forced to go to a food bank while looking after our elderly and vulnerable.
‘A&Es are threatened all over the country by the so-called STPs. The NHS was created by people with vision. Here is an interesting parallel – the people that founded the NHS suffered great attacks from the media just as those of us here, the thousands of us defending it today, also suffer such attacks. Our NHS is ours, it has values. Our principles mean defend the NHS – a basic human value and a basic human right. We have to change the value system. Defend the NHS with all your might.’
Malia Bouattia, President of the National Union of Students, said: ‘Last year we lost student nurses bursaries and there has been a 23% drop in the number of students applying to become nurses this year – shame! And who can blame them? If this government really wants to solve the NHS crisis they should reinstate bursaries immediately. NHS reforms mean handing it over to big business. For the Tories it’s all going according to plan. They want to undermine our health service. This government is undermining our health service.
‘It’s not enough to demand Hunt and May go. We’ve got to send them all packing. If health workers strike we must take to the picket lines with them and strike for as long as it takes – students and health workers together.’
PCS General Secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: ‘Ninety-one days ago today I had a heart transplant at Papworth Hospital and like many others, I wouldn’t be here today without the NHS. Migrants keep our NHS afloat. Migrants and refugees should be welcomed to this country. We’re against cuts, closures and privatisation. Like health workers, civil servants have had seven years of wage cuts. NHS and all public sector workers deserve a decent pay rise. It’s long overdue, the TUC and all the unions must campaign against pay cuts and take action together.’
Dave Ward, CWU General Secretary said: ‘We must take back control of the NHS, the railways, the postal service and the workplaces. Tony Blair said rise up the other week. But we’re not going to rise up over the EU – we’re going to rise up over the NHS.’
Nurse, Danielle Tiplady, said: ‘Cutting bursaries means we’re down 23% and 40% of nurses are heading for retirement. It’s dangerous. On Wednesday they are making a pay offer to nurses. They had better lift the 1%, if not it will be a step too far. If I had my way it would be strike, strike, strike. Come on nurses, together we will rise, because we count.’
Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, said: ‘We will not stand by when they seek to destroy the NHS. We will fight them at every turn. 30,000 have died already this year due to cuts. Whatever it takes we will save the NHS. If industrial action takes place we are with you. Whether in parliament or on the picket line, Jeremy and I will be with you, whatever it takes, we are with you to save the NHS.’