MORE than 60,000 people braved cold and rain and crammed into Gower Street in central London for the start of a massive protest march to Whitehall to demand that the Government must fund the NHS properly and halt the privatisation of NHS services.
They included nurses, doctors and all other kinds of NHS workers along with trade unionists, patients, pensioners, children and people from all walks of life who value our NHS and its provision of healthcare that is always free at the point of use.
But the NHS has been lurching from one financial crisis to another for three decades now as millions of pounds spent on it is diverted into private pockets.
When the NHS was broken up into separate ‘independent’ hospital trusts in the early 1990s the Tory government saddled the trusts with mortgages for the buildings and land.
Then came the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes whereby the Government financed all new building work, repairs and renovation from private PFI consortia of big business corporations saddling the hospital with colossal new debts to be paid off over 20 to 30 years.
The consortia that funded these contracts then started taking over the running of the hospitals. Hundreds of old hospitals were closed and some new ones opened but with a steady reduction in the total number of beds.
The Labour government led by Tony Blair was equally as guilty as the Tories for accelerating this process of reducing the NHS whilst driving it deeper and deeper into debt.
More and more NHS services are handed out to private health companies who take routine work – and the NHS funding that goes with it – leaving complex and expensive cases for the NHS.
Still the cuts continue, especially to accident and emergency (A&E) units, so that during the winter crisis period the surviving units just do not have enough resources to cope and the spectre of patients waiting long hours on trolleys in corridors or even lying on the floors happens every winter.
NHS staff are worked to exhaustion leading to mistakes but miraculously only a few lives are lost. All this so the business-oriented government can say that the NHS is failing through poor financial management and we need a complete change – the end of the NHS and its replacement with a personal insurance system as in the USA – which will exclude those who cannot afford it.
Saturday’s march was organised by Health Campaigns Together and the People’s Assembly. There were other linked protests all around the country.
One of the speakers at the final rally in Whitehall was Nicky Romero, a mother from Bristol whose 15-year-old daughter died after being sent home from a mental health unit.
Her daughter Becky was found dead in July last year. An inquest found that neglect by the NHS service responsible for her had contributed to her death. Nicky Romero reduced many of the crowd to tears with her emotional speech in which she called for more funding for mental health care.
Another speaker was A&E nurse David Bailey, who told the large crowd that 120,000 deaths could be attributed to austerity. He said: “We’re just reaching a crisis point. In Oxford we’ve had 300 beds closed in a year.”
TV actor Ralf Little spoke of love for the NHS. He said that in an age where the country is divided over so many things, the National Health Service is well loved. And he accused Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt of lying about mental health provisions.
Save Lewisham Hospital campaigner Tamsyn Bacchus, who carried a life-size vulture prop hovering over a bloody-painted NHS placard, said she feared Britain could morph the NHS into a US-style user-pays health service.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sent a heartfelt message of support to the marchers, saying that he will fight to stop the privatisation of the health service and promised NHS staff the resources they need.
“It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that our NHS is crisis,” he said. “It is a crisis created by the Tories and austerity.
“In the face of all the evidence – patients being treated in hospital corridors, people dying in the back of ambulances, hospitals in dire need of repair – they are refusing to give our NHS the money it needs and needs now.
“The NHS will only survive if we fight for it.”