|Volume 48 Number 1, February 3, 2018||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
One of the most crucial questions in the fight to safeguard the future of the NHS is where decision-making power lies. The problem is often posed by those fighting to save hospitals and protect services as how to get the present decision-makers to change their minds. In practice, the fight to save hospital services is characterised by the fight to oppose the dictate of decisions taken elsewhere, sometimes with a thin veneer of consultation. Victories are not always won, but the conviction of health workers and concerned people is being strengthened in these struggles that a new direction is required for the NHS based on the right to health care and determined by the people.
We are posting this account of one such struggle, that of the Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign which exemplifies this growing conviction and the unity of the movement in which it is embodied.
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On January 22, the New Year started with a victory for the staff of the maternity and Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) when the full maternity service re-opened at South Tyneside District Hospital after a "temporary" closure at the end of 2017. On November 29, the SCBU was closed due to sickness. Instead of sorting the problem out and involving maternity and other staff trained to cover the unit after closing for one night the Sunderland-based Trust Executive first announced that there would be only "low risk" births at the hospital and then, two days later, this was followed by the closure of the whole maternity service at South Tyneside District Hospital.
Following this decision SSTHC organised a protest for December 8 and some 200 midwives, staff and people from the community gathered for an angry protest outside the entrance to the hospital to call for the immediate re-instatement of SCBU and the full obstetric-led Maternity Service. At the protest, support was given by Emma Lewell-Buck, MP South Shields, Councillors Marion Langley Staff Side Chair at the hospital and Clare Williams Regional Secretary of Unison who called on everyone to support this campaign. It was pointed out at the protest that far from creating the "safe and sustainable" services that the Executive team speak about all the time this was another attempt to pre-empt the outcome of the "consultation" and downgrade these services by claiming that the Maternity service was "vulnerable". It was also stated that the South Tyneside maternity unit has been one of the best staffed in the northern region for many years and in spite of the serious health problems in the borough has had a performance which is amongst the best in the country yet those responsible had brought this service to its knees.
There was concern that after the Stroke Service had been "temporarily" closed almost exactly a year before in December 2016. The stroke team had been broken up immediately whilst "consultation" on its future was still ongoing. Everyone had learnt from this and the staff and the trade unions in the hospital and all in the community fought to get the so-called temporary closure of the SCBU and Maternity by the hospital Trust and commissioners lifted as soon as possible. The SCBU and Maternity staff and their immediate nurse managers had already produced a rota within two days of the closure to keep the service open. Yet the Trust had rejected this and continued with the closure. Staff continued to press their case and were able to put together a rota for three months.
Over this period SSTHC continued to take up the cause of all those trying to ensure the re-instatement of the SCBU and the full consultant led maternity services. What this achieved was that whilst the campaign previously had had a high profile for saving the children's 24 consultant-led A&E through its demonstrations and rallies in South Shields in 2017, now in the eyes of the people of South Tyneside and Sunderland, SBCU and Maternity had become firmly part of this fight to save all these hospital services.
Then on January 15 the Trust Executives announced that maternity would re-open but astonishingly informed the public that there was only a "safe" rota for three months. Most wards are only rostered for one month and the staff were only asked for a three-month rota.
SSTHC has fought for nearly 24 months to oppose the downgrading of the services in phase 1 of their closure programme. This also includes the the downgrading of children's 24/7 consultant led A&E; the loss of consultant led maternity services and gynaecology inpatient beds; and the loss of all hospital stroke services. What has been very clear is that the options they are proposing are less safe and less accessible to the people of South Tyneside and clearly not a "path to excellence" for the people of Sunderland who will have further overstretched services.
As the opposition has grown, the CCG has simply postponed the consultation. They are now expected to announce their decision on on February 21. Over the holiday SSTHC has launched a Crowd Justice Campaign to raise £5,000 for initial legal work and hundreds of people have contributed and that target has been reached. SSTHC is also preparing to fight the next stage of the downgrading of South Tyneside Hospital.
For the people, organising to defend their right to healthcare is of paramount importance to the future of society. As a speaker of the SSTHC said at a packed meeting on January 19 at the public launch of the campaign organisation in Sunderland: "Both the threat of national and local plans to cut and privatise services needs to be challenged by the mass organisation and campaigns of people in our towns and cities. Governments and the Department of Health interfere all the time but do not take responsibility as a public authority and for the public good, but encourage the initiative of NHS commissioners that favour private health cartels. Nearly 70% of all contracts were given to the private sector in 2017. So we have to understand that we are the public authority - ourselves! If we don't organise to take up this responsibility it will mean services will disappear at a very fast rate. We have the possibility of turning this around. We have to establish our own public authority in a society that recognises a right to health services that we think are vital to your city of Sunderland and the towns in South Tyneside and to our NHS. So let us continue the work we have started together and fight together for the good of society and the future of the NHS that fully meets the needs of all. These are our hospitals and our NHS! Health care is a right and should be guaranteed."