Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Whittington public meeting: no room to swing a cat

Following the news that Whittington Hospital bosses had secretly agreed – as in, with zero consultation – to sell off part of the hospital, almost halving the number of beds and capping the births at 4000 per annum, a packed public meeting took place last night, with as many as 700 attendees. Like many people, I was in one of the several ‘overflow’ rooms, where audio from the main hall was piped through.

We first heard from Joe Liddane, Chairman of the Whittington. Liddane claimed that “these plans are about improving, not downgrading, services,” and that “many conditions are treated better in a clinic or a home setting rather than a hospital.”

On the issue of whether the plans had been kept secret, Liddane claimed that this allegation ‘pained’ him. This provoked much incredulous laughter from the audience. When asked by an audience member why he hadn’t made the plans public, he claimed that he would have told people if they had asked. Again, laughter. This guy has a great future as a stand-up. However, we don’t need him in charge of our hospital, especially on a £170k salary.

A Camden Unison member spoke from the audience, countering that the sell-off was just part of ‘farming things out’ to the private sector, and if they really were going to be providing services in the community, they needed to set that up first before selling off part of the hospital. This comment received much applause.

I asked a question (via a piece of paper since I wasn’t in the main hall!) about the capping of births at 4000. Why, if they planned to spend £15 million (later revised to £10 million later in the evening, interestingly) of the sell-off profits on improving maternity services, were they going to cap births at 4000? And where, I asked, did they propose the other babies should be born?

We were given assurances that women would not be ‘turned away’. That’s good. I had visions of women having to labour in the car park.

One of the most curious comments of the evening came from local GP Greg Battle, who is in favour of the sell-off. He commented that hospitals are not seen as ‘safe places’ by many people, and there is a need to get people out of them and home as soon as possible. Wow. This coming from a GP. But surely, then, the answer is to improve hospitals, not sell them off?

Indeed, safety was a key issue for many. The Whittington has the lowest mortality rate of any hospital in the country, we learned last night. Yet closing half the beds, when at points, such as last winter, 95% of the beds were in use, could, in the words of one former Whittington staff member, mean that “there’s going to be another mid-Staffordshire in Archway if we’re not careful.”

We heard from Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn,  David Lammy, Emily Thornberry and Frank Dobson, all of whom made good and passionate points, but sadly they were all seemingly suffering from amnesia. They seemed to have forgotten that the dismantling of the NHS continued apace under the last Labour government, with targets meaning that clinicians lost sight of patients as individuals, as humans, and instead became fixated on statistics.

As Candy Udwin, of Camden Keep Our NHS Public commented, “Under Labour, we saw the drip, drip, drip of privatisation. Under the Condems, we are now seeing a full frontal attack on the NHS.”

One of the most amusing moments of the evening was when a poor bumbling chap stood up and declared he was there to represent Lynne Featherstone, Lib Dem MP (and cabinet minister). Instant booing, obviously. (I didn’t boo, though I may have smiled wryly). People shouted “where is she? Why isn’t she here?” The poor fellow didn’t have much luck, and made the colossal mistake of saying “we’re all in this together.” Cue hilarious, if somewhat bitter, laughter.

I made a comment – again, via paper – that Haringey, which used to have six hospitals, now only has one: St Ann’s, and that this hospital only has three mental health wards left. In September, patients and staff of Downhills ward were told that the ward was closing in five hours, leaving vulnerable people scared and confused. Most of the land at St Ann’s is going to be used to build housing, leaving only a small area as a hospital. I commented that people who are suffering from mental health problems are being left without any assistance as a result. We mustn’t let what has happened to St Ann’s happen to the Whittington.

The meeting was lively and heated, and as well as planning for a demo on March 16th to save the Whittington, it was concluded that strikes may well be in order and that we should begin planning for a London-wide (or possibly national) demo in mid-May. Nine hospitals across London are currently at risk of losing at least their A&E, so it makes sense that we work together to defeat these plans.

As Jeremy Corbyn MP pointed out, London’s population is rising and rising. We need to plan ahead. Selling off and closing down hospitals is short-sighted, and “we are in danger of throwing away a very, very valuable public service.”

See you at the demo on March 16th!

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