What better way to enjoy Valentine’s Day than a spot of direct action at the Department of Health? In the South London borough of Lewisham we don’t celebrate in private, we do it publically – and in style!
On Thursday 14 February, more than 130 babies, mums, dads, grannies and citizens of Lewisham descended unannounced on Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, at his office in Westminster, in a special Valentine’s call. Sadly, he did not join us to receive in person our heartfelt offerings, but that didn’t detract from a morning of peaceful but exuberant protest.
Our message was loud and proud: The fight to save Lewisham Hospital did not end with Jeremy Hunt’s announcement on the 31 January that acute services at Lewisham Hospital would be cut. Red heart-shaped balloons, homemade bunting to festoon the streets, posters inscribed with a message from the mothers, babies, children and people of Lewisham: ‘Don’t rip the heart out of our hospital, Mr Hunt.’ We also hand-delivered baby sock roses, each with its own story of a baby born and saved by Lewisham Hospital. In Lewisham we don’t go for subtle. We go for the jugular.
How can this small part of London have any relevance to the rest of the country and world? I hear you cry.
The reason is this: Lewisham Hospital is a solvent and clinically well-respected healthcare provider. The fact that its fate hangs in the balance is purely financial: its vital services are being sacrificed to bail out the disastrous private finance initiative (PFI) contract that has drained the neighbouring South London Healthcare Trust. So, according to Jeremy Hunt, it’s now perfectly acceptable to remove obstetric-led maternity and emergency care from a population of nearly 280,000 just to balance his books. Never mind the safety of the thousands who use the hospital every day, or the fact that neighbouring hospitals are full to bursting. No, the priority in healthcare these days is profitability.
The other reason why it is important to fight for Lewisham Hospital is the small incidental detail that the coalition government seems to have an agenda to dismantle the Welfare State. I grew up in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher’s government, so sweeping changes to benefits, education and health were a feature of my childhood. I recognize an unmandated eradication of public services when I see one.
Lewisham Hospital is a test case for every hospital across England. And the wholesale destruction of the NHS will have ramifications beyond our green and pleasant shores. Isn’t the NHS held up as a shining light in international healthcare? If we lose a service that is free at the point of delivery, what will we replace it with? Gone will be the days of a pioneering health model to be replicated across the globe.
The boys at Number 10 may think they can dismiss down-at-heel Lewisham, with its massive population of refugees, asylum-seekers, travellers, migrants and vulnerable families, but they have underestimated the little people. The patronising arrogance of our well-oiled leaders will be their undoing.
We have strength and experience on our side. When many of our number have defied military juntas, grown up behind the iron curtain of Communism and marched thousands of miles across deserts, steppes, plains and the English Channel, taking on a bunch of public-school boys doesn’t seem too much of a struggle. And, as most of us are unemployed good for nothings – in the eyes of our esteemed government – we might as well while away our days taking a stand for our hospital, our NHS and the future of Britain’s Welfare State. We’re showing David Cameron what a Big Society can do when people join together and form a real community. We’re not going down without a big, public and embarrassing fight.