Over 1,500 trade unionists, youth and local residents last Saturday defied the rain to march and rally outside St Helier Hospital, near Sutton in Surrey, against plans to close the hospital’s Accident and Emergency department.
‘Keep our hospital open! Save St Helier!’ they shouted.
Trade unionists and residents told News Line they would support an occupation to stop closures with the backing of the community and trade union action.
Local pensioner Ray Horry told News Line: ‘I had my first operation at St Helier in 1939.
‘I want it to stay. It is my hospital.
‘The fact that Tony Blair and Patricia Hewitt never had the guts to turn up today and face us shows what a cowardly pair they are.
‘I’d join an occupation of the hospital to stop the closure. I’m not really a rebel but I’d do that to save the hospital.
‘Everybody, the residents and the trade unions, all the political parties, must take action to save St Helier.’
Croydon and South London Communication Workers Union branch secretary Steve Browett was at the rally with a delegation of his members.
Browett said: ‘Our union supports things in the local community and this hospital is a vital community asset.
‘Our members work in dangerous situations – up telegraph poles and down roadside manholes.
‘It’s vital that if any of them have accidents, they are treated quickly.
‘There should be a co-ordinated action against medical cuts.
‘I’m sure we would back an occupation and direct action to stop the closure.’
Malcolm Campbell, Croydon UNISON branch secretary and local resident told News Line: ‘We totally oppose the cuts to the NHS in general and, obviously, these local cuts.
‘It is disgraceful that a Labour government is involved in these kinds of cuts – not only in terms of the threat to jobs, but also to the services to the local community.
‘It was a fantastic turn-out today that underlies the strength of feeling amongst the local people and health service staff.
‘I very much think that the unions should take action to defend the NHS – its jobs and services.
‘I would support any action that the NHS trade union members and staff decided to take, including occupation.’
Liberal Democrat councillor Ruth Dombey said: ‘I’m one of the joint leaders of Sutton Council.
‘We’ve said all along that we have to have proper health care and properly staffed services.
‘We were promised new hospitals and now we are fighting to save what we’ve got.’
Asked if she would support an occupation, Dombey said: ‘We wouldn’t want to go onto a hospital and disrupt health care. We’ll be outside to stop the decision being made to close the hospital and its A&E.’
Robert, a nurse at St Helier, was very concerned over cuts that have already taken place.
He said: ‘All the orthopaedic work has been transferred from Epsom Hospital down to here.
‘I think that is terrible.
‘It could be a life or death situation that could arise.
‘We’re angry because when patients are admitted they are supposed to be on a ward within four hours but that is not happening because of the bed and ward closures.
‘Patients are being kept waiting for many more hours than they should be.
‘Shutting the A&E here would mean Epsom could not cope and the extra distance could put lives at risk in an emergency.
‘I would support occupying the hospital to stop the closure and putting people’s lives at risk.
‘The unions should be part of this. They should take strike action nationally to defend the NHS.’
Chris Dillon, a volunteer at the hospital’s Radio St Helier, added: ‘The situation is scandalous.
‘If they close the A&E, they are saying the nearest one will be St George’s in Tooting.
‘The staff at St George’s are under extreme pressure already, without having the added burden of extra work.
‘Closing St Helier would mean more hardship, especially for people without cars in getting to an A&E department in the event of an emergency.
‘The ambulance will take longer as well.
‘These cuts would have a direct effect on everybody’s lives.
‘The trade unions should take action. If people do nothing they will get nothing.
‘If people take action we will stop the closure.’
St Helier UNISON porters’ shop steward Colin Brown said: ‘All the porters and cleaners are suprised by the penny-pinching cuts they are doing when there is such money being wasted on pay rises for the chief executive.
‘Our managers are taking on new personal staff, while our jobs are under threat.
‘The A&E closure plan is putting a threat to the lives of the local community.
‘St Helier Hospital was purpose built to serve a large local community, a huge council estate.
‘Local people paid in to help the construction.
‘They all feel terribly let down.
‘There should be action by the unions to stop the closure.
‘We should take any action that is necessary to stop closures, that includes a natijonal strike.
‘We have to be ready to occupy to stop closures – do everything that is necessary to be done.
‘The whole community feels strongly and can get organised to back an occupation and keep the hospital open.’
The demonstration was called by the NHS Together consortium of TUC-affiliated trade unions and professional health organisations including the BMA and RCN.
The giant public sector union, UNISON, head of health Karen Jennings told the rally: ‘We don’t want a market in the NHS.
‘We want to stop these New Labour reforms.
‘We are going to stop the direction the government are going.
‘Like the sell-off of NHS Logistics, that was absolutely disgraceful for this government.’
Ignoring the UNISON leadership’s role in allowing a major NHS privatisation, she concluded: ‘We’re going to stop them.’
Chairing the outdoor rally, Kevin O’Brien, Unison branch secretary at Epsom and St Helier, said: ‘We want local hospitals with A&Es in our communities.
‘We won’t let them close St Helier’s A&E. We won’t let them close our hospital.’
Geoff Martin of London Health Emergency, added: ‘We have been subject to an act of betrayal.
‘We were promised we were going to get a new clinical hospital supported by nine community hospitals.
‘We warned there wasn’t enough money for that.’
He added: ‘This is not about modernisation; it’s about old-fashioned cuts in services.
‘They spent a quarter of a million pounds on KPMG (financial consultants), yet they haven’t got enough to save jobs and beds in the hospital.
‘We need to say to the Trust, stand up and defend the hospital or make way for people who will. Today is the start of the fightback.’
The rally was also addressed by local Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow.