Around 1500 people marched through north London on Saturday to protest against a proposed sale of land at Whittington Hospital. The demonstration provided further proof of the scale of popular hostility to the Conservative-led coalition government’s attack on the National Health Service (NHS). It also revealed again the bankruptcy of those organisations like the Labour Party, the trade unions and the pseudo-left organisations, which claim to represent that hostility while in fact only leading it into a dead end.
The proposed sale would see around one-third of Whittington’s estate sold to private developers to raise around £17 million. Six blocks are slated for sale, including buildings used as wards and staff accommodation.
The Whittington Health Trust Board argue that some of the old buildings are empty and expensive to maintain, and they are planning to modernise the hospital’s infrastructure. Trust Chairman Joe Liddane said the plan is designed to raise cash for “investing in services.” The board has said that in the next five years it will invest £10 million in maternity services, £2.8 million in a new assessment centre, £1.9 million in a new education centre, and £7 million in an electronic patient record system.
What this actually means can be seen in their Estates Strategy report, which proposes the closure of in-patient wards and the axing of beds for the elderly and new parents. This would reduce the number of adult beds from 360 to 300. Two of the three wards caring for older people are due to be closed.
Around 500 jobs would be cut. All the NHS staff accommodation is to be closed and sold off. Births at the hospital are to be capped to 4,000 a year. The Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition (DWHC) has said that the plans will ultimately mean 230 fewer beds, and the loss of 570 jobs.
The board has already rubber-stamped the proposal. The sell-off is an integral part of their application for the hospital to become a Foundation Trust. Last month the hospital’s chief executive, Dr Yi Mien Koh, announced that the Foundation Trust status had been delayed.
The establishment of Foundation Trusts removes hospitals from central government organisation, and is a step towards the complete privatisation of the NHS. To qualify for Foundation Trust status the Whittington was required to make savings of £4.8 million by this month.
After meetings with NHS Trust Development Authority, Dr Yi reported, the board had been instructed to develop their proposal further with plans for making the savings. Foundation Trust status is still their intention.
To justify these cuts the board argue that “care in the community” services can deal better with patients, particularly elderly patients who occupy beds long term. This means leaving vulnerable patients to be cared for by privatised home care services. A recent Care Quality Commission report revealed that a quarter of home-care services across England fail to meet some quality and safety standards.
Professor John Yudkin, a retired doctor who worked at the Whittington for 30 years, told the Islington Gazette he doubted whether community care services could manage. “I’m not convinced that the things that delay people’s discharge and cause ‘bed blocking’ can be treated with community care. They need to test this.”
The hospital is currently running at 93 percent bed occupancy. The maximum bed occupancy recommended by the Royal College of Surgeons and the National Audit Office for reducing hospital acquired infection is 82 percent. The idea that the Whittington’s current high level of occupancy could be managed with 60 fewer beds, said Yudkin, “seems ludicrous.”
There has been widespread local support for the hospital. As with other demonstrations over the NHS, protesters on Saturday voiced their anger at all hospital closures and cuts. What they were offered from the platform fell far short of wholesale opposition to cuts. Instead, speaker after speaker appealed to the Whittington’s safety record in order to plead for a reconsideration of the plans.
Indeed, when details of the Foundation Trust bid were revealed in the local press, the DWHC’s Shirley Franklin actually played down the significance of the move, saying “It’s important not to get bogged down with the detail. I think it’s terribly important to stay with the issues of beds, buildings and jobs.”
This paves the way for pointless appeals to the very people who are administering the cuts. Catherine West, Labour leader of Islington council, told protesters Islington would support the threatened staff at the Whittington. She then called on the Health Secretary to stand with them on this! The idea that the minister responsible for this devastating onslaught on the NHS might do such a thing is political myth-making.
Similarly, the hospital’s Unison health branch rep Dave Webb called on the Whittington board to reverse their decision and join the union in calling for a fully funded NHS. This speaks volumes about the unions’ defence of staff in the hospital.
The reality of the situation was revealed by the fact that staff felt too threatened to appear publicly at the rally. An anonymous letter was read out from a medical secretary who wrote of the protracted redundancy process they had been subjected to. The “mental torture” of this process had suddenly accelerated and, the secretary wrote, “we have been treated appallingly.” The sale of the buildings had come as a shock to staff: “Is the NHS being privatised by the back door?”
A steady stream of Labour MPs and councillors posed as champions of the NHS. They appealed to “the spirit of ‘45”, the post-war militancy which had resulted in the establishment of the NHS. They deliberately seek to conceal Labour’s pioneering of the privatisation of health services through Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) when last in office.
They were able to pose as defenders of the NHS against cuts and privatisation thanks to the support of the ex-left parties and the trade unions. The tone was set by the first speaker, Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South. Appealing to the Whittington’s safety record she said it should not be forced “to become a Foundation Trust too fast.” Rob Murthwaite of Disabled People Against the Cuts opposed the Whittington’s transformation into a Foundation Trust at all, but still sought to portray Labour as a means of achieving this, calling on Labour leader Ed Miliband to organise a national demonstration against cuts to the NHS.
There was also a wholesale deception about the sort of action necessary to defeat these moves, as well as about the results of earlier actions. Shirley Franklin spoke of hospital workers withdrawing their labour “for one or two days, and that will be enough.”
While many on the platform spoke of the need for broader action they do not mean uniting opposition to all cuts in a political struggle to bring down the government but simply bringing individual protests onto one demonstration.
Many speakers cited earlier demonstrations to support these arguments. Andrew Murray (Stop the War Coalition) spoke of needing a similar movement today to the one that saw millions march against the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. He said nothing about the fact that the government simply ignored those protests.
Many speakers appealed to the 25,000-strong demonstration against the closure of Lewisham Hospital Accident & Emergency. Owen Jones, who is calling for a new “coalition of forces” to try and revive the Labour Party, described this as “inspirational.” There was no comment about the fact that it had not prevented the downgrading of Lewisham A&E or the cuts in neighbouring South East London Healthcare Trust.
The coalition government’s assault on the NHS cannot be fought on the basis of regional pressure actions, or by appeals to the parties that have collaborated in the NHS’s demise. The defence of health care and every other basic social right can only be taken forward through a break from the unions and the Labour Party. Action committees must be formed by patients, hospital staff and the workers and youth whose lives and health are being jeopardised. The Socialist Equality Party calls on working people to join its fightback campaign at nhsfightback.org.