Keep Our NHS Public member Paul Casson explains how campaigners are successfully fighting to keep their local hospital open in the Southern Lake District.
The threat of hospital closure is a familiar one to the people of Kendal and South Lakes. There is a history of fighting to retain a semblance of hospital services at the local Westmorland General, with residents resigned to receiving many essential forms of medical treatment at Lancaster Royal Infirmary 25 miles away.
Instead of providing the full range of general hospital provision, Westmorland General is operated to respond as a contingency system, subject to market forces, building with one hand and cutting with the other, installing temporary resources then removing them. Its future permanently suspended and at risk of the next round of cuts.
So when it became apparent to all that the preferred option for the bid to the New Hospitals Programme was a single hospital near Preston, to replace both Lancaster Royal Infirmary and Royal Preston Hospital, requiring a round trip of approximately 90 miles, the sense of resignation was replaced by one of outrage. Not least because this appalling concept of distant centralised provision was being lauded as a “super hospital” with strong hints that the building itself will be privatised, adding another nail in the coffin of our once- upon-a -time fully public NHS.
Significantly Westmorland General is the only one of the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust excluded from the long list of proposals, starving it of the potential of capital funding. No ensuing measure of protection. Nothing.
A tick-box exercise
Insult was added to injury by a propagandised “public engagement” strategy, a dubious questionnaire design, seeming to shape responses towards bland approval; misleading information presented to Health Scrutiny Boards over the extent of public engagement; and lamentable effort by Healthwatch attempting to pay lip service to accountability, leaving participants furious and their questions unanswered. Paltry attempts at public engagement in empty school carparks and quiet residential streets continued until in desperation our local branch took a hand in setting up High Street public consultation and information sessions.
From our street sessions we realised the public knew little of the threat and were surprised and horrified at the idea of a ninety-mile round trip. Not least those dependent on public transport and those with vulnerabilities. Neither did they know of the mechanisms by which the corporate take-over of the NHS was operating.
So, we campaigned. Galvanising the local press, aligning with national initiatives, and a utilising the local elections have been our strategies.
SOS NHS Campaign links
The SOS NHS National Day of Action was timely for us. Occurring three weeks before the publication of the short list of options for the bid. The timing was perfect for influencing what was removed from that shortlist.
The flexibility that the SOS NHS initiative offered, to incorporate local issues alongside national ones was invaluable. They offered a customised variant of their core leaflet, essentially a big blank space where we could list demands.
As well as the national demands for
- 20 billion pounds of emergency funding is needed now to help the crisis-hit NHS survive
- Investment should be in a fully public NHS
- Pay justice for staff is needed to retain workers and help fill vacancies
We made our own local and national demands
- A new hospital needed in Lancaster (not down the M6 near Preston)
- More hospital services needed at Westmorland General Hospital
- A fair, open and honest public consultation on future health services
We took advantage of the wide range of campaigning resources, and publicity. The 40 + affiliated SOSNHS organisations produced a great range of posters which, together with our own posters, saturated our town centre and its approaches. Many of our campaigning ideas and hints came from the preparation zoom sessions provided by Unite, SOS NHS, and Keep Our NHS Public (KONP).
Taking matters into our own hands
An open letter to The Secretary of State and the Health Scrutiny Boards signed by the people of Kendal and South Lakes had people queuing three deep to sign at a rate of 3 per minute.
We have carried out extensive household leafleting, some doorstep campaigning, and more street campaigning. We have lobbied our MP and the Health Scrutiny Boards of Cumbria and Lancashire.
We found that our press statements fell on stony ground, but repeated follow up within the timescale of weekly publishing deadlines, did break though, and once we had the ear of a reporter, then the high value in public interest of local NHS issues meant that there was receptivity to follow up. We realised that the local press was not against us, rather they were struggling to cope. We presented them with crafted articles and many photographs, making it as easy as possible for them.
We approached the KONP Executive Committee to request they consider the appropriateness of us standing four of our members as candidates in the local election. KONP constitution stipulates political independence. The executive felt that local group were in the best position to make this decision. We decided to ally to the Trades Union Socialist Coalition and to stand under their umbrella. We can see an accord between their “No Cuts Needs Based Budget” platform and our Save the NHS campaigning.
Well, we have won one battle, the final shortlist of options have appeared and the single hospital option far down the M6 has been removed. It’s a great victory, as we are very confident that this was their preferred option, but there is little opportunity for celebration, as we are straight back into the fight, and now the local election campaign is taking centre stage.
Paul Casson, Kendal and South Lakes KONP