Recently I was sitting talking with a friend who was relating the harrowing tale of her partner’s sudden illness. My heart was in my mouth as she described the paramedics arriving in minutes to their home, the ambulance that took them to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, her partner being transferred to a specialist clinic at King’s College Hospital on Denmark Hill, and the weeks and weeks of appointments with consultants after his discharge.
As she spoke I could see the hospitals in my minds eye and thought of these massive buildings and their sisters dotted throughout the fabric of London that is spread across the Thames Valley. How many of these places have cared for us at Platform and our families and friends? Off the top of my head I can remember how individuals among us have been supported by St Thomas’ Hospital, Guy’s Hospital, Homerton University Hospital, Royal London Hospital Whitechapel, Whipps Cross Hospital, and beyond London, Medway Maritime Hospital, Darent Valley Hospital, John Radcliffe Hospital.
So many times I’ve heard friends say: “Oh the NHS service was wonderful” or “It was amazing. The staff were incredible.” However it is curious the way the experience is retold only as individual or familial. The service in these hospitals has helped us in Platform, or our partners, children or relatives. Yet we rarely talk of how the NHS has helped us as a group. How its existence has underpinned ours.
In purely financial terms the NHS reduces the costs of running Platform. Were we based in the USA, like many sister organisations, the wages that we pay ourselves would need to be that much higher to enable each individual to contribute to their private health insurance. As it is, the wider society of Britain provides this support for Platform in financing the NHS.
At a deeper level, the existence of the health service removes from our daily collective life a level of anxiety. When a Platform companion suddenly took compassionate leave to care for her partner, we were anxious for her. We didn’t think “Oh dear will a prolonged illness mean that her family will be thrown into financial turmoil and will this mean that she will be unable to work at Platform?” Perhaps we should have had this thought. But because of the wider social provision that has existed for over two generations in our society, we did not think about how ill health for one of us, or our families, might destroy our own security as a group.
This lack of a collective sense of being supported by, the NHS, is echoed in my feelings as to what I can do about its plight. Repeatedly I read the headlines “NHS Winter Crisis” or “NHS on brink of collapse”. However I do not take action in response, I do not gather with others in order to act.
I find that the press coverage serves only to numb me, as it instills a sense that this massive instution is tipping endlessly into chaos, and that there is nothing I can do to halt its death spiral. Of course I can clearly observe that recent governments have starved the NHS of investment, and that we need to elect a party that is truly committed to reversing this decline. So the easiest route to preserving the NHS is by ensuring the election of such a government at the earliest opportunity.
However this ‘macro-level’ approach seems to deny the possibility that I – or me and my companions – might take a more considered, reflective, even intimate approach to caring for this vital service that has cared for me, my companions, and our families for the better part of seventy years.
This is what inspires me about the work of one of Platform’s former Trustees who has long been a wonderful ally for many years – Peter Roderick. Peter is a lawyer by training and was pivotal to many environmental campaigns, such as the Friends of the Earth’s legal work in the Battle against the Newbury Bypass. Since 2014 Peter has been working alongside Allyson Pollock in the Campaign for the NHS Reinstatement Bill.
The heart of the campaign is to demand that a bill be passed through the House of Commons and the Lords, that reasserts the founding principles of the NHS, as providing the best healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery. The bill would fundamentally roll back the process of creeping privatisation that has been disembowelling the NHS since the Thatcher Government in the 1980s. When the campaign launched, the prospects of it being successful seemed bleak. But so much has changed over the last three years in British politics. The collapse of Carillion is only the latest disaster to reveal just how flawed is the principle of the state paying private corporations to deliver public services such as the NHS.
The Campaign’s latest manouver is to request a judicial review of the actions of the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt. In order to bring this legal action in the High Court, Peter and colleagues needed funds and launched a crowd justice appeal – in an amazingly short period of time it raised £170,000 from 6,000 donors.
Now the legal battle has begun and I urge readers of this blog to go onto the site and follow the campaign. Support the initiative, wear their badge, not only because they need our encouragement, but also because it is an action we, as individuals acting collectively, can take.
In some ways, for Platform to support the work of the Campaign for the NHS Reinstatement Bill is a return to orgin. One of our earliest projects, in 1984 – 1985, was Addenbrookes Blues. This combined research, agitprop theatre and mobilising demonstrations to support the domestic cleaners who were on strike at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge.
The service of maintaining the cleanliness of beds and wards at the hospital had long been undertaken by in-house staff. But this work had effectively been privatised and outsourced to a profit making company, OCS (or Office Cleaning Services). The new employers had radically reduced the terms and conditions, and altered working hours. It was one of the earliest signs of the long process of privatisation that has hollowed out the NHS, but which even 34 year ago was being resisted by workers and trade unionists.
Over the better part of a year, a group that combined students from Cambridge University and activists from the city, performed theatre in the market square and fundraised for the pickets at the hospital entrance. We teamed up with Tom Snow, an amazing Education Officer from the NUPE union (now absorbed into UNITE), who arranged for us to perform at union meetings, at hospitals in East Anglia, outside the House of Commons and at political rallies. We were clearly part of a drive to help give energy to the struggle of trade unionists and the Labour Party in the face of the onslaught of the Thatcher government and we were delighted to meet the the then Labour Leader, Neil Kinnock, and perform alongside the Shadow Minister for Health, Michael Meacher.
The Platform team in that project included Graham Burns, Richard Fredman, Dan Gretton, Abigail Morris, Wes Stace, Mel Steel, Mark Wheelan and Anna Wright. Many of these we’re still in touch with, others we’d love to reconnect to. But, I’ve no doubt that all, at many points have had cause to fall back into the arms of the NHS and use its hospital, health centres and surgeries dotted across the UK. Silently, so often in the background, it has helped enable the work that we have all undertaken.
How would it be if we were to collectively engage in the defence and support of the NHS institutions in our locality? I am reminded of a plaque on the wall of a building on the Walworth Road in Southwark that the writer Ken Worpole drew my attention to.
‘The health of the people is the highest law’, a translation of a line by Cicero, was carved into the front of the Walworth Health Clinic opened in 1937. A decade before the NHS was founded, here was a Labour Borough Council, like others across Britain, funding the construction and provision, with the most modern equipment, of a local clinic to provide for the poorest in the community. As Cllr Gillian, the head of the Labour run Public Health & Sanitary Committee said: “when the health of the people, and particularly the poorer classes of the population, is involved, only the best equipment and the most modern scientific devices would suffice.”
Perhaps, just as campaigns for Energy Democracy have reignited a desire for municipal electricity systems publicly owned and democratically run, we might see a similar level of imagining and engagement in the provision of health care? Perhaps we might turn to help the NHS, to defend it, and posses it in return.
With thanks to Sarah Legge, Peter Roderick, Ken Worpole