FIFTEEN thousand health workers and trade unionists from schools, local councils and other public services – as well as local residents fighting hospital closures up and down the country – joined the ‘NHS Together’ march to defend the National Health Service, in London on Saturday.
There were banners from branches of UNISON – the largest health workers’ union – from across Britain, from Scotland to the West Country, as well as the national banners of the UCU university trade union, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, the NASUWT school teachers’ union and GMB Southern Region.
There was also a contingent from the doctors’ trade union, the BMA, as well as banners and placards from Unite, Keep Our NHS Public, the Campaign against Tube Privatisation, South Gloucestershire Save Our A&E – NHS hospitals for care, PFI hospitals for profit, Save Our Senior Carers, Hands off the Horton, Keep the NHS Working – Act Now to Save the NHS, Save Huddersfield Hospital Services, Save Whipps Cross Hospital, Free Speech for Trade Unions – Defend the NHS, Reinstate Karen Reissmann, Lewisham Stop the War Coalition, NHS Not for Sale, Keep private vampires out of our NHS, Chagos Islanders Community Association and Don’t Close Hemel Hospital.
The marchers were also joined by a health workers’ samba band and the Frickley and South Elmsall brass band.
The march from the Thames Embankment went past Downing Street to a rally in Trafalgar Square.
Along the route there were contingents shouting slogans such as ‘NHS not for profit – fat cats get off it!’, ‘March for health – kick the fat cats out!’, ‘Public health not private wealth – save the NHS!’, ‘Will you listen Gordon Brown – a hospital for every town!’, ‘One, two, three, four, five – keep the NHS alive! ‘Six, seven, eight, nine, ten – Don’t just sell it off again!’
A contingent led by the banners of the All Trades Unions Alliance and the North East London Council of Action shouted: ‘Defend our hospitals – kick out the privateers!’, ‘Out with Brown – defend the NHS!’ ‘No to polyclinics – defend general hospitals!’ and ‘Defend public services – occupy now!’
Local residents Theresa King and Eileen Forster told News Line they were part of a contingent fighting to save four hospitals in West Sussex – Worthing, Southlands, Princess Royal and St Richards.
‘It’s the biggest attack there’s ever been on the NHS in our area’, they said, ‘and 175,000 people have signed petitions against the closures.
‘They should be upgrading not “downgrading’’ our hospitals!
‘On November 13-14, we will stage an all-night vigil outside Worthing Hospital and if they don’t listen, then there should be an occupation to keep it open – a rooftop protest.’
Neil Large, a UNISON steward for the National Blood Service in Birmingham, said: ‘We have come to show our disgust at the fragmentation and selling off of parts of the NHS and the creeping privatisation.
‘In the National Blood Service there’s a strategy afoot to decimate it and literally rip the heart out of it.
‘Currently, there’s 15 blood centres around the country that do processing and testing and issue blood supplies and they want to reduce us to three “super centres’’.
‘This could put the public in real danger. Lives could be lost because of the extra distances and time that will be involved in delivering and testing blood.
‘Serious questions need to be asked of the various trade union leaders as to how much they want to protect the NHS.’
Sally Faibrace, a regional officer of the union Unite (Amicus section), said: ‘I represent NHS staff in the Eastern Region and the situation is exactly the same as everywhere else.
‘We’ve got the reconfiguration, we’ve got the government putting their guidelines to the management of the NHS, which is forcing them to make decisions we think are wrong.
‘They’re looking at privatising the pathology units in hospitals, which means getting the blood tests sent out to private contractors, which in turn will actually cause redundancies.
‘Amicus are doing as much as I think we can do.’
Paul Garrard, a workplace rep in pathology at Farnborough Hospital in Kent, said: ‘We’ve had people made compulsorily redundant in our hospital and we’re facing the merger of four Trusts and Queen Mary’s and Sidcup might lose its A&E. They might make it a polyclinic or a minor injuries unit.
‘The whole public need to get involved to save the NHS.
‘It’s come to the crunch where we’ve got more andmore problems like MRSA and C.diff because of a lack of qualified staff, lack of care and a lack of space, because hospitals are too full up. That’s the result of the hospital closures that have already taken place.’
Tom Yates, medical student at University College Hospital in London, said: ‘A lot of the hospitals, particularly in north London – UCH, the Whittington – are paid for by the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and that’s going to take a lot of time to pay back. It’s a really bad deal.’
Oliver Johnson, a medical student at King’s College, said: ‘By introducing private providers for surgery it’s going to have a big impact on training.
‘A lot of the simpler operations like cataracts and hip replacements are being outsourced.’
Simon Booth, a member of the NASUWT teachers’ trade union from Birmingham, said: ‘We should go a lot further than this. This march is just the unions getting together and actually sounding their voice.
‘We should do more, we will do more.’
Jeanne Roberts, a Royal College of Midwives regional officer for London and the South East, said: ‘It’s great that we’re all standing together to show the government we do mean business.
‘The government has published a paper called Maternity Matters and we expect there to be funding to put that into place and for it to work we need 5,000 more midwives.
‘I think we should do whatever it takes to stop the privatisation of the NHS.’
Duncan Edwards, a UNISON steward at the Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford, said: ‘I think we need to tell the Labour Party they should be representing our interests, rather than private enterprise, and if they won’t then I think we must look at stopping union funding of the Labour Party.
‘If they are privatising our members’ jobs then they are the same as the Tories.’
Chris Moore, Whipps Cross Hospital UNISON branch secretary, said: ‘I think for a long time we’ve just taken it on the chin.
‘We’ve been told since the Tory government that they’re just trying to streamline the NHS.
‘The Labour government is not just continuing along the same lines, but is going far further in what is a commitment to big business and American-style privatisation of the health service, piece by piece.’
Dora Kostiuk, a retired civil servant from Nottingham, said: ‘I’m here as a patient and therefore I’m trying to defend the rights of patients.
‘I fear that by having private treatment centres and things like that we are slipping into a private way and this is being done behind the public’s backs.
‘I read the Darzi report and this said in areas where we are short of GPs and other health workers we must turn to the independent, voluntary and private sector for support.’
Chris Fraser, a member of the NUT teachers’ union in Nottingham, said: ‘The unions should be having a national strike with everybody out, a TUC general strike.
‘We should be renationalising, not privatising.
‘The union leaders don’t represent the rank and file, they are just interested in their own careers.
‘There should have been a general strike a long time ago. It’s long overdue.’
Thelma Gray, a UNISON branch secretary in Hull and East Yorkshire Trust, said: ‘We’re marching on behalf of the public to try and keep the NHS public.
‘The Trust wants to make £20 million savings next year and what worries us is how they’ll do that.
‘I think the trade unions should stop hospital closures, but PFI has become so deep-rooted it will be difficult to stop it now.’
Andy Parkin, a member of Stoke-on Trent UNISON local government branch, said: ‘Privatisation is absolutely abhorrent.
‘I can’t see any place for private companies in the NHS and if nurses and support staff are required to go on strike against it, I’d be fully behind them.
‘I think the TUC should be here. The TUC should lead the fight.
‘I think national action is required to defend the NHS, that’s certain.’
Julie Warner, a health visitor from Bristol and member of Unite, said: ‘I think we have to continue pressing for consultation and educate the public about what’s happening to the NHS, because I don’t think they realise the implications.
‘If things don’t improve then I think we will have to take action, but I think it’s important we all have to work together to protect the health service.’
Steve Akers, a UNISON regional officer for the West Midlands, said: ‘There are 25,000 senior care assistants in Britain who are under threat of deportation as a direct result of a change in Home Office rules.
‘Sending them back to their home country makes no sense and deprives this country of a skilled and committed workforce.’
UNISON member Leah Gilman, a community mental health worker from Manchester, said: ‘There’s been three days of strike action in the last week across the community mental health teams in Greater Manchester, to demand the reinstatement of Karen Reissmann.
‘She’s done absolutely nothing wrong. Clinically, they can’t fault her.
‘But she’s an active UNISON shop steward who speaks out against the NHS cuts and particularly the mental health cuts that our community mental health teams are experiencing at the moment.
‘If Karen is sacked for being a member of UNISON, how then can UNISON have any strength?
‘This is an issue for the whole NHS and that is what Karen is fighting for, to stop the cuts and PFI.
‘She’s been a been a mental health nurse for 25 years with brilliant experience and brilliant clinical practice.’
A rally in Trafalgar Square was compered by comedians John Ryan and Windsor and culminated in a performance by the Alabama 3.
Addressing the rally, TUC president and UNISON leader, Dave Prentis, said he was ‘proud of the many thousands of UNISON members who have come here from all over the country to stand up for your communities and the NHS.’
He also sent his condolences to the families of the firefighters killed in Warwickshire.
Lilian Macer, chair of the UNISON Health Service Group executive, said the introduction of the market place into the health service went against ‘the key principles of the NHS’.
Tracey Young, a health visitor and member of Unite, said: ‘A full-time health visitor’s post is being lost every day. Our workloads are spiralling out of control.’
GMB national officer Sharon Holder said it was a day for ‘serious contemplation’.
Warning of the consequences of returning to the pre-war situation before the NHS was established, she urged everyone to ‘fight to ensure that the American nightmare never takes root in the UK.’
Louise Silverton, from the Royal College of Midwives, said: ‘We need an additional 5,000 midwives in England’ and described a two per cent pay award as an ‘insult’.