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From Jarrow to London for our NHS

As a health worker for more than 20 years, Steve Sweeney has seen the service being gradually torn to pieces. Now he and many others are marching 300 miles to save it

I first started working for the NHS back in 1991. I was a 17- year-old studying A-levels and needed some money to fund my weekends and my friend Ben had a job cleaning at Chesterton Hospital in Cambridge.

I soon joined him and embarked on a career that saw me working in a variety of hospitals including in Brighton, Eastbourne, Liverpool, Halifax, Cambridge and a spell in Australia.

The hospital that I started out in is no longer there, demolished to make way for housing.

In Halifax where I worked at the Calderdale Royal Infirmary, the accident and emergency service is under threat.

The District General Hospital in Eastbourne has seen protests at plans to cut jobs and services — an all-too-familiar theme that is repeated across the country.

I have seen many changes over the years including the introduction of NHS Trusts in 1994, disastrous PFI projects and the expansion of a costly internal market. I also remember how grim things were under the Tories. I remember the buckets in the corridors collecting water from leaking ceilings.

When I started work there were two cleaners assigned to each ward. However, following outsourcing there was often only one cleaner for three wards.

My local hospital, Hinchingbrooke in Huntingdon, was the first in the country to be franchised, with privateers and donors to the Tory Party Circle Health taking over in 2012.

Despite the spin, this has been an unmitigated disaster. After taking over to much fanfare it didn’t take long before the cracks began to show. Front-line nursing staff were axed. The cleaning contract was renegotiated, leaving half the number.

Circle CEO Ali Parsa, who had been parading himself around the main national media outlets months earlier citing the Circle model as the future for the NHS, resigned six months into a 10-year contract.

Margaret Hodge MP slammed Parsa and Circle at the Commons public accounts committee, accusing him of being sacked and questioning the £400,000 payout he received on jumping ship.

Months later, the chief executive of the hospital Jim O’Connell took “early retirement” at the age of 50, which must be small consolation to those health workers who have been told they must work longer and pay more into their pension to get less at the end of their working lives.

Cambridgeshire has been used as a testing ground for NHS privatisation with the successful bidders for a controversial contract for older people’s services set to be announced at the end of September.

Despite a high-profile campaign and over 5,000 signatures opposing the plans, the Cambs and Peterborough care commissioning group have ploughed ahead with the largest tender in NHS history which could see private-sector vultures Virgin Care or Care UK running the services.

On a personal note, my youngest daughter was admitted to the special care baby unit when she was born with breathing difficulties. Without that care and support she would have died. Only the NHS can provide this. This service, like so many others in the NHS, was threatened with closure.

The People’s March for the NHS was started to highlight the government role in the destruction and privatisation of the NHS. While there are national issues, each section of the march has its own story.

I am the co-ordinator for the Bedford leg of the march and we will be highlighting the campaign to defend NHS services that are under threat in Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes.

The CCGs have been conducting a “healthcare review” since January and as a result it looks very likely that one of the hospitals will end up with a downgraded A&E.

The private sector has also been invited to see which services they can cherry pick, leaving both areas facing an uncertain future.

Recent news saw A&E services in Bedford struggling to cope with “extra demand” due to the start of the school holidays.

This pressure would increase considerably if one of the A&Es were to be downgraded and it doesn’t take a great imagination to realise the potential consequences.

Some areas don’t have to imagine. Tragedy struck weeks after the closure of Chase Farm A&E in north London when the mother of a two-year-old child took him there in the early hours of the morning.

Instead of finding a functioning A&E, she found locked doors.An ambulance was called and they were taken to the North Middlesex Hospital five miles away. However Hashir Naveed died.

This has become a battle for the soul of the NHS. The People’s March is the visible expression of this. I have said at countless NHS campaign meetings, rallies and other events that it is up to us to set the agenda, and the march can fulfil this role.

The Tory claims of openness and transparency — “No decision about me without me” — are far from the truth.

I was at Hammersmith Hospital in London recently when the CCG was deciding on the future of Charing Cross Hospital. Hundreds of protestors demonstrated outside receiving support from passing cars and members of the public.

Heavy-handed security accosted me at a side entrance, but more significantly they barred Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter from entering the public meeting. This is a shameful stifling of democracy and it was only after he went live on LBC that they allowed him in.

Similarly in Cambridgeshire it took the threat of legal action before the CCG embarked on a public consultation over the controversial tendering of almost £1 billion of services for older people, and even then the question of whether services should be run by the private sector wasn’t asked and campaigners condemned the process as a whitewash.

We have also started discussing the legacy that can be left by the march. As we leave each area, the issues still remain.

At present, the struggle is localised with many different campaign groups from Save Lewisham Hospital to Occupy Stafford – but the attacks are national and so must be the response.

Uniting groups and sharing experiences is crucial. In Bedford and Milton Keynes, we were quick to realise this. One of the slogans that has grown organically from the campaign has been “One Community. One Goal. Save Our Hospitals.”

I am marching as I cannot stand by and watch as the Tories systematically destroy and privatise our NHS — an NHS that was fought for by working-class people and represented a major step forward for the health of the nation.

When we do fight we can win.

The Lewisham Hospital campaign is an example for us all. In Cambridge, mental health service users who occupied Lifeworks won a victory, securing the future of their services. And fight we must as our NHS is under threat like never before.

One goal. Save our NHS.


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