It was a warm Sunday afternoon on Gostrey Meadow in the picturesque little market town of Farnham, west Surrey. Locals sat lazily on the grass and laid out picnic blankets, enjoying the live music, street food, workshops and children’s games of their town’s Spring Festival. Tea was in full flow. A perfect family event for the bank holiday weekend.
After the Farnham Rock Choir finished their set of eight or nine songs, the National Health Singers choir took to the stage. They sang power anthem “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, followed by an original song called “Stand Up for the NHS”.
The latter includes the lyrics “Jeremy Hunt and the government has systematically misled the entire country”. Its chorus goes: “It’s not safe, not fair, but they just don’t care, we did not sign up for this.”
As soon as the choir finished its second song, the microphones were switched off and their set was called to a close. The compere told the singers and audience that it was time to wrap up the performance, and the choir had to leave the stage.
Footage from the event posted by junior doctor and singer Rishi Dhir shows the set being cut off early. Dr Dhir’s comment on the video reads: “Censorship is alive and well!”
Still from Facebook footage of the incident.
“We’ve got to move on, we’ve got to crack on mate,” the compere says over a microphone, to boos and calls for more songs from the audience. “I’m really sorry, we’ve got to crack on, I’m getting it from above, so we’ve got to crack on with stuff. I, I, it’s, it’s… OK, we’re moving on, sorry guys.”
— SarahAshurstWilliams (@DrSarahAW) May 28, 2017
The National Health Singers have been singing protest songs to raise awareness of problems facing the NHS, and in solidarity with health service staff, since 2015.
In Farnham on Sunday, it was a group of around 13, mostly NHS doctors, nurses and workers, who had travelled down that morning – one from as far as Nottingham – to perform. Farnham is in the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s constituency of South West Surray.
NHS Choir in Farnham yesterday. And they weren’t singing for Jeremy Hunt #swsurreynha#electdrlouise pic.twitter.com/Dyw1DIlksG
— KJAP (@mrsdog50) May 29, 2017
“They had told us we had half an hour,” says Maria Gilroy, a 45-year-old senior nurse who manages the choir and organised the performance. “We went all that way for two songs. We were on for five minutes, six minutes maybe. We paid for our own transport there, our own lunch out, so it was quite an expensive day for some people.”
Both Gilroy and Dr Dhir accuse the mayor, Conservative councillor Mike Hodge, of calling for the performance to be stopped. He has been approached for comment but has not responded.
“I felt embarrassed,” says Gilroy, who has been a nurse for over 20 years. “I felt like I’d been told I’d done something wrong, and that’s not what we want to put out there about our choir. We’re peaceful people who like singing and [being] uplifting when things are so drastic, and promote the NHS – that’s what we do.
“We all work really hard and are worried about the state of the NHS and what might happen with a Conservative government being left in power.”
Gilroy claims that the group was invited by Farnham Spring Festival organisers and was not told its performance should be apolitical. “Had they communicated effectively, I wouldn’t have brought the choir down from London,” she says. “I’m a nurse. I wouldn’t do something like that if I felt it was unwanted.”
However, Farnham Town Council, which organised the festival, says the choir contacted them directly to ask to perform – and were told to keep politics out of it.
“It was made quite clear at the outset we’re in the purdah period,” says town clerk Ian Lynch, although he admits not all “individual members” of the choir may have been aware of this arrangement. “But certainly whoever was the lead person from the choir who spoke to us was made absolutely clear about it.”
He adds that the decision had nothing to do with being in Hunt’s constituency: “As it’s a town council-organised event, we follow where we can the purdah guidelines, and that means we don’t have support for one particular party or candidate at an event.”
Lynch says this is why their performance was terminated: “There were some comments within the songs, which were obviously political satire, which seemed inappropriate for the event, and not in accordance with what had been agreed prior to them performing.”
Neither side can provide correspondence to show whether the choir was invited or asked to perform itself, and whether it was informed of the apolitical rule, as they say it was all organised by phone. Either way, Gilroy believes this treatment is symptomatic of the government’s attitude towards health workers’ concerns:
“It just feels like we’re being constantly censored,” she says. “We found it really hard to get media coverage over the doctors’ dispute, and that comes from Jeremy Hunt . . . He has absolutely no respect for the NHS. I feel like he just doesn’t care. What they’ve [the Tories] promised is more of the same, more cuts, more staff in crisis, no real plan.”