Don’t Make A Casualty of Our A&E!

At the end of last year I was shocked to hear of plans to close the Accident and Emergency (A&E) Department at my local hospital, the Whittington in north London. Not only is it a vital service that I have used as a local resident, but I used to work there as a mental health social worker.

It all started when our local MP received a leaked document describing plans to ‘reconfigure’ (i.e. close) the hospital’s A&E Department and replace it with a privately run urgent care centre. A public meeting was hastily organised and attended by three hundred people who angrily heckled the NHS Islington Chief Executive who had come to defend the plans! It was decided there to launch a campaign against the proposals.

An activists’ meeting was held the following week and the small community centre room booked was barely big enough for the 70 plus people who turned up. This included local campaigners, trade unionists, political party activists, hospital workers, community and patients groups and residents. At this stage some political parties had set up their own campaigns, but central to our eventual success was the decision to join these together to form a united cross-party coalition. Another key factor was making clear the link between NHS cuts and privatisation.

We decided to organise a demonstration giving ourselves two months to publicise the proposals and build the campaign. A range of activities were planned including cavalcades, letter writing, leafleting of neighbourhoods and regular stalls with petitions, posters and leaflets at busy locations such as the shopping centre. We were aided by good publicity from the local press but the key was getting out on the streets and talking to countless local people (we eventually collected 16,000 signatures on our petition).

We also developed strong links with local trade union branches which raised the profile of the campaign amongst workers. Though some Whittington hospital trade unionists were involved from the start, we also leafleted the hospital regularly to strengthen links with hospital workers and build their confidence to challenge the proposals from the inside. This eventually led to the biggest union meeting at the hospital in years. Overall momentum was sustained through fortnightly planning meetings to co-ordinate these diverse activities.

Our march, attended by 5,000 people, was a great success and with extensive press and TV coverage proved to be a major turning point. In the run-up to the general election the popularity of the campaign made it a hot local issue that all mainstream political parties wanted to be identified with. To capitalise on this, one week before the general election we organised a ‘Day of Action’ and rally. All sorts of stunts and activities took place including patients attending their GP surgery dressed in Whittington cat costumes and bus workers at a local depot holding a ballot over the A&E proposals. At the lunchtime rally outside the hospital the announcement via a local MP that the New Labour Health Secretary was scrapping the reconfiguration forced his Conservative counterpart to declare his own moratorium on the plans. We celebrated a great victory for what the local newspaper headline called ‘people power’, but our coalition remains vigilant in case the new Government tries to renege on its promise.

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