Over 2,000 NHS staff and campaigners heard union leaders, clinicians and managers denounce the Health Bill at a rally against the government’s planned reforms in Westminster last night.
Attendees heard shadow health secretary Andy Burnham pledge to use Opposition parliamentary time on Tuesday to call a new Commons debate and vote offering a “final chance” to reject the bill.
However, Mr Burnham admitted it was possible the bill would pass. He said: “If I’m health secretary after election I’ll put the ‘N’ back in the NHS. I will repeal this bill.”
But the TUC-organised event at Westminster Central Hall, which constituted one of the largest displays of public anger about the health service in recent decades, largely belonged to NHS employees and their representatives.
John Ashton, the regional medical officer for the North West who was recently disciplined by his employer NHS Cumbria for making political comments, urged attendees to sign up to this weekend’s Liberal Democrat spring conference in Gateshead, where they could make their voices heard.
“Make your way to Gateshead – it’s easier to register for their conference than it is for the Conservatives’ conference,” he said. “If we have big picnics all over Gateshead we can save the NHS.”
He also said the generation of people who fought in World War Two and had founded the NHS “don’t expect to see it becoming asset stripped by carpet baggers… who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
Another public health figure, Alex Scott-Samuel, director of the Liverpool Health Observatory, quoted Gandhi in advice to Liberal Democrat peers: “Non-cooperation with evil is as much of a duty as cooperation with good.”
Peter Carter, general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “I predict if this bill gets royal assent, within four years there will be another reorganisation of the sort that we’ve seen time and time again.”
Crossbench peer Lord Owen compared the mandate for the current reforms with that for the creation of the NHS in 1948.
“Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan, they had an overwhelming mandate to introduce that legislation,” he said. “Can anyone say that David Cameron and Nick Clegg have an overwhelming mandate for the [health] bill?
British Medical Association chairman Hamish Meldrum, who had earlier in the day unsuccessfully spoken against a motion of no confidence in Andrew Lansley at the BMA’s consultants committee conference, also spoke.
Amid much cheering, Dr Meldrum said: “This bill was supposed to be about listening to doctors, nurses and patients. Mr Lansley are you listening?”
What they said at the rally
Clive Peedell, consultant oncologist: “I ran from Cardiff to London because I’m bloody angry about this bill.’
Iain Bell, psychiatric nurse: “Are GPs best placed to make decisions about those with mental illness who often don’t trust them?”
Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary: “I’ve angered people lately by raising some issues about the Olympics. I hope people get as angry about the NHS”
Dorothy Matebeni, South African nurse leader: “We’ve seen that the NHS works for the people in the UK so it will work for us [in South Africa, which is creating its own health service]. Viva the NHS.”
Jo Brand, comedian and ex-psychiatric nurse: “I’ve a soft spot for Nick Clegg. It’s face down in a bowl of custard”
Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary: “GPs will pass the money on to KPMG and American multinationals like United Healthcare.”