It was NHS Trust Special Administrator Matthew Kershaw who first attempted to bring about the closure of Lewisham’s A&E and maternity services after Private Finance Investment (PFI) caused a monumental debt problem that left the South London Healthcare Trust near bankruptcy. It is doubtful he could have predicted the response that followed.
The Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign has been working tirelessly against Kershaw ever since, bringing to light the fact that Lewisham Hospital was a successful hospital that was not suffering from any monetary issues itself. The hospital only became caught up in the mess after Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, took on Kershaw’s closure recommendations. After a 20,000 strong demonstration and various other protests showed the level of popular defiance, and the High Court’s final decision on the closures was in favour of the campaigners on the basis that the closures were unlawful, and Lewisham’s A&E and maternity services remained untouched.
I arrived at the most recent Save Lewisham Hospital protest assuming that because there had been some successes in the campaign it was likely to be dying down, but I was wrong. As the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign write on their website, “We have no doubt that while we can celebrate for the present, the fight needs to continue against NHS cuts, privatisation and government attempts to make hospital closures more easy through changing the law.”
One of those still unhappy with the situation was John Howes, a curt, well-spoken musician and lecturer holding a large placard and a small smile. “I’ve been actively involved with the campaign for more than a year,” he tells me, emphasising the fact that although it has been mainly a campaign based around Lewisham and the surrounding boroughs, he believes that it has also had an impact nationally.
“You just have to stick with it,” he says, when I ask him if he is pleased with the successes so far, “because at every bit of success the enemies of the NHS will try to undermine and undo it. ” When he refers to “enemies”, John seems to be talking about the Conservative government, and it is true that Jeremy Hunt appealed against the High Court’s decision on the Lewisham closures, albeit unsuccessfully.
As the protest swelled, it became even clearer that those involved were far from appeased. Many were unhappy about the privatisation of the Greenwich and Lewisham procurement department, and at the suggestion that it could be sold off to American company Serco, which has a bad reputation of mismanagement and corruption. Others commented on the recently announced 118 Clause of the Care Bill, which according to the campaigners could effectively lead to more service closures up and down the country. The impression I was given was that the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign continues with a vengeance because its supporters believe so strongly in protecting the sanctity of the public health service nationwide. They have moved on from a single-issue to a wider scale of protest.
But George Hallam, a cheery member of the local People Before Profit Lewisham political party, explained to me how, despite this, the campaign does still have focuses on Lewisham:
“Now the campaign is a bit different because Lewisham Hospital has voluntarily merged with Queen Elizabeth,” he says. “But the PFI agreement still stands. The way PFI gets structured means that it goes up, it’s not like a fixed-rate mortgage”. Worried that the government will eventually turn around and realise that subsidies will not cover the increase in PFI, George describes how People For Profit are wary of future cuts. “They may achieve their end yet”, George says, “not immediately but over a period of four or five years.”
George is right. First introduced by John Major, but expanded under New Labour, PFI has proved to be a financial disaster. It is no wonder that those who are part of the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign are so ardently against privatisation, when they can see first hand what PFI has done to the South London Healthcare Trust, which was dissolved back in October. Up to 24 other trusts are under threat due to PFI debt.
As I left the protest I could hear the eerie echoes of Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Kershaw, our hospital is here to stay, to the tune of Dad’s Army’s theme song. I felt a huge amount of respect for the campaigners still standing out in the cold. Although now lacking the vast community support that was ignited when Lewisham Hospital was directly under threat, there is a core campaign group that is not going anywhere anytime soon. For as John, George and the rest recognise, this fight against privatisation and closures goes far beyond the Lewisham borough.