Last night I attended a public meeting called by Hammersmith and Fulham Council to report on the findings of the Independent Healthcare Commission, which was chaired by Michael Mansfield QC. The main findings were reported in the mainstream media in December and now it was the public’s chance to hear about the findings. It was a well-attended meeting with many people standing, and an overflow room had been made available for those who couldn’t squeeze into the limited space in the Town Hall’s small hall.
The meeting was chaired by Cllr. Vivienne Lukey, the cabinet member for health and adult social care. Her opposite number, Conservative councillor, Andrew Brown, was also present in the audience. I had been told that Brown was a doctor, but it turns out that he didn’t qualify and, in the middle of his training, transferred to the BSc Medical Sciences with Management course at Imperial College instead. He currently owns and runs a, guess what? A PR company that specialises in communications in the healthcare sector.
Council Leader, Stephen Cowan, was first to address the audience. He told us that his life had been saved by the NHS at least five times during his childhood and for this, he would always be grateful to them. Cowan also remarked on how upon taking office, he was finally able to see the confidential papers relating to local hospital closures, which confirmed his worst suspicions. During the 2014 Local Government elections, the local Tories claimed that Labour and the Save Our Hospitals campaign was “scaremongering”. They have been rudely exposed as liars. Brown was silent.
Cowan also claimed that Shaping a Healthier Future (SaHF), a group established to provide public relations for the cuts, has literally spent billions churning out propaganda and little else. SaHF’s website trumpets what it calls “joined up care” and announces “7 day services”, which itself hinges on Jeremy Hunt’s tissue of lies about the NHS not having a 7 day service. Cowan also warned the government that the council wouldn’t hesitate to take them to court and a Judicial Review would be the possible next step. Brown said nothing.
After Cllr Cowan’s address, a film was screened that outlined the findings of the Independent Healthcare Commission was screened. Brown was unmoved.
Dr. Stephen Hirst, a former GP and a health commissioner explained how all the hospitals in which he’d worked had all closed. He then went on to claim that SaHF affects areas of high deprivation more than other areas and any attempt to define Urgent Care Centres, such as that proposed for the Charing Cross Hospital site, was difficult. As for the proposal to move most of Charing Cross’s functions to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, he asked “Why can’t St Mary’s move to Ealing”? Ealing Hospital’s maternity unit and Accident and Emergency department has recently been closed. Brown offered no response.
Next to speak was Dr. John Lister, who told us the commission took written depositions from both sides. However, the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) saw fit only to provide witnesses after the elections. The commission also sought a meeting with NHS England but its Chief Executive, Simon Stevens, was being obstructive. Stevens, according to his Wikipedia entry is former Labour councillor on Lambeth Council. But that wasn’t all: the business case for closures was constantly delayed and it seemed to me that NHS England was dragging its feet because it has something to hide. Lister, who was witty and humorous in his assessment, also added that the commission recommended that the closed A&Es be reopened. “How many nurses do you have to sack to save £75 million”, he demanded to know. Brown stood there impassively.
It struck me that, once again, the government and its lackeys were manipulating statistics to make some rather boastful and dishonest claims. It was also clear that the CCGs were not standing up for patients or the needs of hospitals and were solely concerned with cost-cutting. This is ironic given the amount of money being spent on management consultants and PR companies like Saatchi. Dr. Lister concluded that “Urgent Care Centres have a place as long as they’re alongside A&Es”. Brown said nothing and fiddled with his phone.
Save Our Hospitals (SOH) chairman, Patrick Barron gave an emotional and passionate speech, telling the room that “They’re trying to shaft the community”. He reminded us of the junior doctor’s strike and how the government has ended the nursing bursaries, which begs the question: how do we attract more people into nursing? Surely, the possibility of a crippling debt is enough to deter anyone from entering the profession? Barron said that Northwick Park Hospital couldn’t cope with the sheer volume of patients who had been displaced by the closure of A&Es elsewhere in North West London. However, when Barron claimed that SOH helped to get Labour into power in the borough and repeated the earlier claim made by Cllr Cowan regarding the Tories lying over hospital closures,. Cllr Brown finally felt emboldened enough to speak. “It’s not true”, he interjected. The Cat thinks that Brown’s sense of entitlement compelled him to interrupt Patrick Barron, because he was neither a doctor, nor a councillor, nor a person of the same class as Cllr Brown. A typical Tory bully.
The Q&A session began with Dr. Sean Morris, a junior doctor who explained the situation on the ground. Brown looked uncomfortable (he was asked to give up his seat to someone who was less mobile and was standing) but interested. Dr. Morris told the audience how he had worked in four local hospitals and that the review was not “clinician-led”. He also told us how, on more than one occasion, he’d worked 56 hours straight. The last strike by junior doctors was 40 years ago, yet the Tory government has cast the British Medical Association as a militant trade union in the mould of the National Union of Mineworkers. How’s that for melodrama?
Speaker after speaker gave their views, one of whom reminded us of the European Union’s working time directive, which will no doubt be scrapped if Britain leaves the EU. A former SOH chair, Merril Hammer, was pleased that Cllr Cowan had indicated the possibility of a judicial review and asked what the council was doing with regards to challenging the business case adding “Save Our Hospitals is not going away”! Cowan said that he’d met with a QC about the case and said “the last thing we want to do is sue the government” but “if we have to, we will”. He then reminded us that £35 million had already been spent on management consultants. A shocking waste of money that could have been spent on the NHS instead.
Local MP, Andy Slaughter arrived late after voting against the government’s welfare bill and further cuts to disability payments. He reminds us of the Tories’ “black propaganda” when they were running the council. There isn’t a peep from Brown. However, Dr. Hirst assured us that the review is not party political and says that “no one knows his politics”. This is issue “isn’t about Labour or Conservative” he claims. Brown nods.
Actress, Vanessa Redgrave, whom I’d last seen at a production of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf nearly 10 years ago at the now demolished Riverside Studios, spoke passionately about how the NHS saved her life and said “what the government is doing to junior doctors is illegal”. Interestingly, she reminded us that if all else fails, there was always the option of taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Jim Grealy also of SOH wanted to know where the team goes from this point on. Finally Dr Sandhu told a harrowing story about what he had to deal with over the Christmas period, while working at Ealing Hospital. He finishes by telling us how expensive MRI scanners that have been installed at The Shard, which is visible from the hospital. A private healthcare company having taken over three floors of the building in November 2013. It was obscene. “The Shard” he tells us “sticks out like a knife” cutting out the heart of the NHS. It’s a potent mental image to be sure.
The meeting was encouraging but it’s clear that there’s a great deal of work to do. The struggle goes on!