By New Worker
THOUSANDS of local residents in Lewisham, south London, took to the streets in the cold and pouring rain last Saturday to protest at plans to merge Lewisham Hospital with hospitals from the South London NHS trust – which has been declared bankrupt and is in administration.
The changes that would follow from this would mean the closure of accident and emergency (A&E) and maternity services at Lewisham.
It would leave just one A&E unit in south east London – at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Woolwich Common, already seriously over-stretched – to cover a population of 750,000.
The huge turnout surprised everyone, including the police, who failed to make provision for redirection of traffic so the whole area was in gridlock as the march passed.
But the drivers and passengers of the buses, cars, vans, taxis and other vehicles stuck in the gridlock were mostly in good humour, tooting their support so that the whole of the town centre was a cacophony of blaring horns for large parts of the march.
And shoppers and shopkeepers, despite being temporarily halted on a crucial shopping day before Christmas, also voiced their support. This was a march – estimated numbers between 10,000 and 15,000 – that really did reflect the views of the local community.
The march was organised by Save Lewisham A&E – an umbrella group of campaigners such as NHS Public
The unions were there in force: Unite, Unison, GMB and non-health service unions like PCS, NUT, FBU and many more. Contingents came from neighbouring boroughs of Greenwich, Bexleyheath, Bromley and even from Tower Hamlets on the other side of the Thames.
Many activists had worked very hard publicising the march but they were amazed at the number or ordinary people who turned out in response, especially considering the foul weather.
The marchers included a complete spectrum of ages – from dozens of babies in buggies to Lewisham Pensioners’ Action – and the diverse local ethnic community.
Chants included: “No if, no buts, no NHS cuts,” and: “We won’t die for PFI”.
The march progressed from a roundabout near Lewisham Station, through the town centre and made its way to the hospital where a human chain around the threatened hospital was originally planned but was scrapped so as not to disrupt services at the hospital.
Marchers were diverted to a rally in Ladywell Fields – a park behind the hospital.
By that time what murky daylight there had been was fading fast and the park was a mud bath but spirits were still high, spurred on by a local campaigning choir and a German Oompah band in fancy dress costume.
One marcher was Sarah Upton whose nine-year-old daughter suffers from cerebral palsy. She says those responsible for the proposals should be "sectioned".
The 35-year-old, who lives in Catford, said: "She's used that hospital three times in two months when she's stopped breathing.
"If that happened and I phoned the ambulance we might not make it all the way to Woolwich.
"The person who proposed these plans needs to be sectioned. They need hospital treatment."
NHS Public spokesperson Frances Hook said: "It was very lively. It was across the generations – teenagers, youngsters, parents. And ethnically it was a representation of the borough. It was completely fantastic.
"Lots of traffic must have been stuck for hours. There was complete support – bus drivers had their thumbs up."
She went on to say that the march has galvanised the cause and campaigners will now look at the Trust Special Administrator's (TSA) documents to prove that the figures are not correct.
Unison branch secretary at Lewisham Hospital Conroy Lawrence added: "We are overwhelmed by the response of the local community; that in the cold and incessant rain over 10,000 people from all parts of the community would rally to defend the hospital, is truly inspiring to the staff at the hospital.
"This campaign has the full support of the medical, nursing and professional staff and their unions and with the support of the local community we are unstoppable.
"The people have spoken and the politicians and bureaucrats would do well to listen."