LOCAL residents, trade unions and doctors have joined together to fight the privatisation of the National Health Service in Tower Hamlets.
Two hundred people staged a demonstration outside St Paul’s Way Medical Centre in Bow on Thursday, to voice their anger at the decision to hand over the GP surgery to a private company.
‘Patients before profits, defend the NHS!’ shouted the crowd, who heard a number of speakers warn that the handover of St Paul’s to Atos Healthcare was only ‘the thin end of the wedge’.
In a leaflet calling on people to join Thursday’s protest, Tower Hamlets Keep Our NHS Public said: ‘Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust (PCT) has given a 10 year contract for the GP surgery at St Paul’s Way Medical Centre to Atos Healthcare from February 1st.
‘Atos Origin is a multinational for profit company which has also got the contract for IT at the Olympics.
‘Atos has never run a UK NHS GP practice before, but they run the DWP medical examinations, walk in centres and prison medical services.
‘Local NHS practices with experienced local nurses, doctors and staff, who consulted local people about what they wanted, and were willing to run the practice, were turned down.
‘Local patients and NHS staff are very angry that this practice is being given to a private company.
‘They want to see good local practices working closely with the local community, where they know they will see the same people over many years, and have confidence in staff.
‘What they don’t want to see is health care being run for profit before patients.
‘Tower Hamlets GPs have voted no confidence in the PCT and will take action.’
The leaflet also warned that: ‘The PCT management says the plan is in 2008 to contract out the GP practices it runs directly, so by the end of the year nearly a quarter of people would have to use privately run GP practices.
‘These include the new centre at Barkantine, where local people and health workers’ protests stopped the site becoming private housing, as well as the surgeries at Shahjalal, Pollard’s Row, E1 Health and All Saints.
‘Tower Hamlets Council and the PCT have a “Joint Strategy’’ for health.
‘Two elected councillors sit on the PCT board.
‘What role did they have in privatising this GP practice?
‘Did the Council or the PCT ask you as local residents if you wanted your local GP practices to be run by a multinational profit making company?’
Many people spoke out against privatisation at Thursday’s rally.
Daniel Flood, a local resident who joined the demonstration, told News Line: ‘I’m here to bring to people’s attention the fact that they’re gradually privatising the NHS and if people don’t wake up they’re going to need to pay before they get medical treatment: if you get run over they will be looking for your wallet before they help you!’
Ronald Sale said: ‘We’ve come down here on behalf of Blithedale Medical Centre in Bethnal Green, in support of our own GP, Dr Siobhan Cook, because we fear the PCT could close her practice down.
‘We’re here in support of her and against this privatisation.
‘There were GPs willing to take this surgery over and they weren’t allowed to.
‘I think the trade unions and communities have to take action to defend the NHS, because this is the thin end of the wedge.
‘I was in the TGWU all my working life and I think the trade unions have to take some meaningful action.’
Councillor Ahmed Hussain told News Line that when the running of St Paul’s Way surgery was put out to ‘open tender’, two bids from local GPs and one bid from the private sector were shortlisted.
But he said that ‘the whole tendering process is highly skewed in favour of the private sector.’
He added: ‘This is the first time the private sector has entered into the health market in Tower Hamlets.
‘It will open the door to Virgin, Boots and all these private sector firms and that is why we are protesting.’
He added: ‘The company which is coming in to run the practice has no experience of running a general practice.
‘All they run is two walk-in centres, one here in Docklands and one in Liverpool.
‘The Barkantine surgery on the Isle of Dogs – that’s a multi-million-pound facility just opened two months ago – is run by local GPs and is working really well.
‘So if they can do it, why do we need the private sector in this place?
‘The other point is that this surgery is due to move into a state of the art new building, to be built across the road in a Private Finance Initiative.’
One GP told News Line: ‘I’m a GP from Chrisp Street and we were one of the practices that bid to take on the practice at St Paul’s Way.
‘I’ve come to protest against the PCT, which has obviously lost confidence in its GPs and decided that the private sector is the future and I want to be part of a Tower Hamlets voice that says there is an alternative – us – and we’ve got a 25-year track record of providing excellent care.
‘I came to Tower Hamlets 10 years ago to work in this practice, which had a national reputation, and I’m shocked that the PCT has decided that a computer company can provide better healthcare than we can.’
Speaker after speaker at Thursday’s demonstration vowed to fight the privatisation of the NHS.
Dr Anna Livingstone said: ‘We’ve all been part of the NHS for many years, whether we work for it or whether we’re patients.
‘We use it because we need it.
‘We’re in the job because we want to work with the people we live with in the east London community.
‘Atos is a multinational,’ she added, warning that multinationals look after profits, not people.
Councillor Ahmed Hussain warned that GPs employed by the privateers ‘will not stay here long’.
He said: ‘They will be given a certain amount of money, a salary. They will not have any future with these kinds of companies.
‘The GPs will keep on moving on and the general public will see new faces every six months or every year.’
Oliur Rahman, chair of the PCS civil service union in east London, said privateers are ‘completely useless’ at running public services.
He added: ‘There are councillors on the PCT board. Their decisions affect the community.’
Dr Kambiz Boomla, from Chrisp St surgery, said: ‘In Camden, three practices were handed over to United Healthcare this week, the largest American multinational company.’
He warned that ‘all vacant practices’ were being handed over to the private sector and that they would be run ‘for profit, in competition with each other’.
Condemning ‘marketplace medicine’, he also warned that patients were now being sent to ‘Independent Sector Treatment Centres’ for operations, and said Private Finance Initiative schemes like the one at the Royal London Hospital were twice as costly as hospitals built directly by the government.
He said the government’s decision to bring the private sector into the NHS will mean that the cost of the NHS ‘will start to rocket’.
Maggie Falshaw, Limehouse GP practice manager, said the PFI project at the Royal London Hospital ‘is going to cost us £100 million every year for 40 years.
‘We, the taxpayers, are paying for that new building,’ she added.
She also claimed: ‘Atos Origin, a private company, in 2006 made £236 million profit.
‘Do you think they’re going to spend money on decent pay for staff or on decent healthcare?
‘I think they’re going to put profit before healthcare.
‘People on this estate did not know this surgery was being given to a private company.
‘The PCT board made the decision to hand the surgery to ATOS Healthcare.
‘Did the councillors on the PCT board talk to the other councillors and get their view?
‘We want as many people as possible at the next council meeting, putting these questions to the council (on February 11 at the Town Hall).’
Jim Fagan, publicity officer for Tower Hamlets UNISON healthcare branch, said: ‘We will not go back to the days before the NHS was founded.
‘Today’s protest is just a start.’