Rally in Whitehall at the end of Saturday’s Defend the NHS march
Rally in Whitehall at the end of Saturday’s Defend the NHS march

UP TO 20,000 doctors, nurses, other health workers, trade unionists, older workers, students and youth marched on Downing Street on Saturday afternoon, angrily demonstrating in defence of the NHS against the Tory-LibDem Coalition government’s attacks.

There were hundreds of banners, placards and flags, including the North East London Council of Action banner, which read: Defend the NHS! By All Means Necessary! Save Chase Farm!

There were banners from Bristol Health Service Unite, a huge RMT balloon saying ‘NHS Not for Sale’, the ‘Defend Whittington Hospital – Don’t Make a Casualty of our NHS’ banner, SOAS Unison and two big Unite balloons.

The Unite Health banner was there, along with Lewisham Unison, Lewisham Local Government, Bectu, GMB Southern Region, Unison Kingston Hospital, GMB London, Ealing NUT, Southwark Unison, Islington and Haringey GMB, London and Eastern Region Unite, PCS.

Placards included ‘Time to Wake up to this Evil government’ and ‘Politicians are wrecking our NHS’, while there were also scores of GMB, Unite and RCN flags.

The march assembled in Waterloo before crossing Waterloo Bridge, proceeding down the Strand into Trafalgar Square and then into Whitehall, where a letter was handed in at 10 Downing Street.

The letter, signed by groups including the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition, Save our Hospitals Ealing, and Save Hammersmith and Charing Cross Hospitals, as well as a number of MPs and unions, said: ‘Closure of nine A&E Departments across London, a number of maternity units and thousands of hospital beds will put Londoners’ lives at risk.’

It concluded: ‘We are calling for an immediate end to the closures and privatisation threats to London’s NHS.’

Different delegations spoke to News Line as the march assembled.

Chrissie Gardner, Unite Assistant Branch Secretary Bristol Health Service Branch, said: ‘People aren’t fully aware of what’s ahead under this government – total privatisation of the health service and massive closures in the acute sector and secondary care.

‘The amount of private work will be huge, bringing in a two-tier system.

‘We’re here to support the health workers in London and we hope there will be a national demonstration soon.

‘I sit on the national industrial sector committee for Health for Unite and there was a unanimous vote for that.

‘I support direct action including occupations, otherwise they’ll just take our NHS and hospitals.

‘I have to speak in a personal capacity, but if ever there was an issue that demanded industrial action, lawful or unlawful, it’s our NHS.

‘I support the need for a general strike to bring down this government.’

Lindsay Wall, Bristol Local Government shop steward, said: ‘We’ve got to go beyond petitions and marches.

‘Occupying hospitals will up the ante and that’s what’s needed. Wherever the private companies touch is a disaster.

‘I also think the unions should organise a general strike. Some of the union leaderships are letting us down.

‘We need the next generation. They are into direct action, and we have to be too.’

Tahir Bhatti, GMB Organiser, West London, said: ‘We represent nearly 100,000 members and we’ve got to stop the closure of our west London hospitals.

‘Closure of Ealing Hospital A&E will have a devastating impact on our local community and I would support an occupation of Ealing and all our local hospitals, and so will our members.’

Christine Sosseh, Treasurer of Milton Keynes RCN branch, said: ‘Milton Keynes Foundation Trust is under special measures, which means it is making terrible cuts.

‘In the region there’s a five-hospital review into the future of the District General Hospitals in Milton Keynes, Kettering, Northampton, Bedford and Luton & Dunstable.

‘The outcome of the review will be A&E and other closures.

‘If they get away with closing the A&Es in London they will do it in our area and everywhere else. That’s why I’m here.

‘I definitely support occupying and a general strike to bring down the government.

‘We need to keep the NHS in public hands. Privatisation will destroy it. My mother-in-law emigrated to Canada, but came back because they didn’t have an NHS there.’

Paul Maloney, GMB Southern Regional Secretary, said: ‘We have to stop this government driving a coach and horses through our NHS.

‘GMB will support our members and others in whatever action they take in defence of the NHS, including occupations.

‘There is a widespread concensus that there has to be action across the unions, that means a general strike.’

Two drumming bands with the Unite and GMB delegations increased the volume of their rhythmic beat as the march set off.

Those behind the North East London Council of Action banner, which included a lively Young Socialists delegation, kept up constant chants throughout the march: ‘Defend the NHS – Kick this government Out! Defend Chase Farm – Occupy Now! No Privatisation – Kick this government Out!’

Danny Tartaglia, an interpreter from Waltham Forest, told News Line: ‘I work for the NHS a lot. We all use the NHS and we all need the NHS. Maybe we take it for granted.

‘But if we lost it, it would take 100 years to get it back. I would support occupying to stop all closures and I will support the occupying of Chase Farm Hospital.’

Donia Jud, a UCU lecturer from Waltham Forest, said: ‘I would support a general strike. This government has got to be thrown out.’

Tasha Arnold, BMA, North East London region, said: ‘I oppose competition in the NHS because it is destroying good hospitals.

‘The NHS is a perfectly good organisation which is being undermined, and ultimately will be destroyed, because of the setting up of a market. It’s got to stop, now, before it’s too late.’

Sarah Gow, a Unison member from Kent, said: ‘I’m here with my auntie to protest against the attacks on the NHS.

‘Elderly people are getting a raw deal. Hospital closures threaten us all, but especially the elderly.

‘I would support occupying hospitals and a general strike.’

Paddy Leahy, from Lewisham, said: ‘Lewisham Hospital must be saved. It’s a very good hospital and very well respected. Direct action is a must. I would support and participate in an occupation.

‘I’m from the north and my father was very much involved in the miners’ strike.

‘The Tories, under the guise of the coalition, are trying to break up all working class services, to subjugate us so they can make us work as cheap labour.

‘Removing the Welfare State is their primary objective.

‘They want to move the NHS through the shadows into private hands, passing millions of pounds of public money into the hands of their supporters.’

Jackie Turner, Tower Hamlets BMA, said: ‘It’s appalling. The NHS is being privatised under our noses.

‘I’m determined that even though the Health Act has gone through we have to stop the NHS being destroyed.

‘If it’s not reversed, we’ll end up like the US, where there is not universal coverage and the poor die in the streets.

‘The unions should have acted to prevent the Health Act going through, including my union. They should have called a national demonstration, and it’s a disgrace that they didn’t.

‘There should be a general strike to save the NHS and the whole of the Welfare State.

‘Occupations are a necessary tactic to stop closures. At the end of the day, if that’s what you’ve got to do to stop them closing a hospital, then that’s what you’ve got to do.’

Clive Wood, Southwark Unison Convenor, said: ‘We have to defend the NHS against the Tory cuts.

‘I support the call for a general strike and my colleagues on the branch committee are of a similar view, in support of a general strike.

‘Our branch hasn’t got a position on the policy of occupying closure-threatened hospitals, but personally, I think it’s a good idea.

‘We have to bring this government down and go forward to a workers’ government and socialism.’