Born aloft by people of all races, colours and creeds – stitched banners, painted banners, banners with good jokes, banners with bad jokes and to the strains of an oom-pah band - comes the regular chant of Save Lewisham Hospital – Save the NHS!
Squelching along in the rain – parents with children, buggies and prams; professional groups from medical colleges and unions; teenagers with pop riffs written across placards walking alongside MPs; the Mayor of Lewisham and council members; newly acquainted neighbours marching together; various clergy including the Bishop of Southwark accompanied by small children chanting though mini-megaphones; glamorous, affluent elderly residents; young professionals and local campaign groups of varying political persuasion - the sum total of the parts of Lewisham all joined in protest at the so recently emerged threat to a vital and prominent service set at the hub of the borough.
Far from being irritated or offended by the sizeable traffic hold-up, the motorists hooted and tooted in support.
Police presence (and support) was there in plenty but the only ‘bit of bother’ was a fight between two mid staffs type dogs, which they summarily carted off before any passing demonstrator needed fast access to A&E. And so the demonstrators moved on.
My physio and then my OT passed by, both so pleased I had been able to make it just two weeks after an extended hospital stay – but only with their expert help so gladly given.
I wish I could say I counted them in and I counted them out - but it was impossible to keep up, as this most family-friendly of demonstrations filed past my stewarding post, where I sat perched in my NHS-blue wheelchair under cover of a handy banner - only there by dint of my own dedicated medical team.
Beneath the drizzling and darkening skies wave upon wave of impassioned Lewisham humanity wove their way through the centre of the borough towards the focus of attention - the long established refuge for the local sick, injured, dying and newly born - Lewisham Hospital.
Originally established as a workhouse in 1614, the buildings were replaced, refurbished and altered until, in World War One, the hospital function began to evolve with the treatment of wounded soldiers.
By 1948 it was already established as a hospital, all ready and waiting in keen anticipation for the launch of Bevan’s NHS, buildings which will now be bundled into a £17 million sell-off.
Since then, Lewisham Hospital’s reputation has grown to the appreciably decent - particularly showing significant (and award-winning) improvement in the treatment of the elderly, as well as expansion of excellent clinical services under the leadership of current chief executive Tim Higginson.
With an enviable buildings complex, this is a hospital which should be anticipating a solvent and successful future. This is a hospital which serves a borough the size of Hull and Brighton.
This is a hospital which saves lives - an estimated 10% of which will be lost if travel to hard-to-reach QEH Woolwich is the only option. This is a hospital which is significantly more accessible and with better, recently improved buildings. Taking a shaky neighbouring hospital under their wing should not require the dismantling of these better, recently improved facilities.
The TSA (Trust Special Administrator) recommendations make no clinical sense nor do they make economic sense. This is all about the introduction of the law of the jungle into the world of the NHS - and Lewisham people do not want their cherished hospital facilities to be turned into celebrity-get-me-into-here private provision.
One hundred and twenty thousand patients treated in A&E per year; 4,500 births per year, a 21-bed state of the art ICU (with capacity for expansion to cover SLHT, South London Healthcare Trust, shortfall), treating 700 pa critically ill patients from all over London.
As Rich Breeze and his critical care team have already written to the TSA:
“The Borough of Lewisham contains some of the most deprived wards in England. Deprivation is known to make severe, complex illness more likely. Despite this, Lewisham ICU is one of the better performing ICU’s in the country. In the last 12 months Lewisham ICU/HDU has looked after 772 patients at 94.9% capacity, with 34.8% on full life support and 12.6% requiring renal support…
“Lewisham is the only DGH (District General Hospital) ICU in London that has been recognised by the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine (FICM) as of sufficient quality to train the intensive care doctors of the future. The loss of this training provision has also not been consulted on or even considered.”
Brand new A&E? State of the art Birth Centre? Precious ICU and acclaimed paediatric wards? All gone? No admissions? Deficient income? What a sell-out.
As the burgeoning marchers arrived at the hospital site they circled around to gather for speeches and to embrace the hospital buildings - in response, the duty staff and those patients who were able, hung out of windows to cheer on the throng of support.
Those whose lives have been saved spoke to the press - who in comparison to their desultory lack of interest in the Health and Social Care Bill are waking up with a speed commensurate to a blue light emergency. The choir born out of Gareth Malone’s enterprise were there to sing independently, but with far more relevance and emotion than a mere competition would engender; rousing speeches from hospital workers and local patient voices as well as from Joan Ruddock MP and Mayor Sir Steve Bullock were all suitably brief but no less meaningful.
Next comes tonight, Super Wednesday 28 – a further public event in the evening at Catford Broadway Theatre, running alongside special Full Council motions in the Civic Centre - both running alongside an Adjournment Debate in the Commons secured by Lewisham West and Penge MP Jim Dowd. A joint response to the Temporary Special Administrator Kershaw is in preparation - his own consultation meetings clearly being insufficient to the day.
As it is, the wording of the consultation document is already under question and Mayor Sir Steve has also challenged the short period/notice of the 30-day consultation period. It also seems that people of Greenwich borough (who originally thought this would benefit them), are beginning to realise they will be faced will longer queues and over-stretched services - when the demand is already well in excess of supply.
They have already lost their own local hospital - so this is surely not to their benefit. What is urgently needed is a re-negotiation of the killer PFI deal plonked onto QEH - which (so far) Kershaw has refused to consider, taking refuge in the Health and Social Care Act opt-out of the duty to rescue.
Exactly what Lansley expected when he appointed Matthew Kershaw is uncertain, but it is doubtful he thought it possible to mobilise such a huge and united response so quickly. Whilst the Health and Social Care Act allows the new Secretary of State to objurgate responsibility for safeguarding services, the Department of Health is also duty bound to consult the local population and workforce with any proposed changes. This, dear Jeremy, is the voice of the people united!
Just over a year ago, 25 people gathered in front of the Lewisham Hospital with @LewSOSNHS banners and candles to mark a vigil for the NHS - little did we dream that just a few short months later and, despite the pouring rain, this would have multiplied to 15,000 (estimate from Traffic Control).
As one Save Lewisham Hospital campaigner, Andy Worthington, wrote after the march:
“We all did our bit, this campaign is clearly bigger than all of us. I’ve lived here for 16 years, and this was the first time that I felt that the people of Lewisham had solidarity against a grave injustice.”
• Join the fight to save lives and Save Lewisham hospital – November 22nd, 2012