The proposed closure of Lewisham’s A&E and maternity units isn’t just a local matter. If our political leaders get their way with this one, your hospital may be next in the firing line
New year, old fight. In November I went on my first protest march (I’m sorry – I was the most disgustingly apathetic young person you can imagine). Despite the filthy weather, 15,000 of us turned up to oppose the proposed closure of the emergency and maternity departments of our local hospital, Lewisham, and the selling off of their buildings. Some marchers were evidently veterans, and to prove it had the waterproofed provisions, placards (many done for the occasion by Guardian cartoonist and local lad Martin Rowson) and stoical children pre-strapped to bike seats. But most were novices – of every age, economic stratum and ethnic background – who had come out of their homes to do this strange new thing of making publicly known their anxiety and anger.
Drivers going past waved in support, beeped their horns or rolled down their windows to cheer us on our way. Some children had set up a mini steel band at the hospital entrance, to welcome us when we arrived. As we crossed the recreation ground behind the hospital, used by my school as a sports field, I was assailed by hideous memories of adolescent PE classes, our legs mottled blue and red like corned beef on the turn as we lumbered sullenly round, our only true athletic achievement lying in the bobbing and weaving that took place as we tried to avoid being concussed by Kim Harrison’s bosom. But, apart from this, it was a good day.
It was not, of course, enough to alter the hospital’s proposed fate. Nor have the letters and petitions from the residents of London’s 16th poorest borough, pleading with special administrator Matthew Kershaw to leave them their recently refurbished, well-run, highly respected A&E department, instead of making one unit in Woolwich – two buses and an hour away for much of Lewisham’s population – to cope with the emergency medical needs of 750,000 people. Nor have the responses put together by the hospital’s doctors and other staff, who have mined the detail of Kershaw’s sextet of more or less insane recommendations and set forth the illogic and inconsistencies they found therein. Among them is the spending of an estimated £195m on implementing the changes, or more than three-quarters of the debt Kershaw is trying to erase (debt belonging to South London Health Trust, which has been crippled by PFI payments and to which Lewisham does not even belong). Another is… actually, would you mind awfully having a look for the rest at savelewishamhospital.com? My fingers keep seizing up in rage and disbelief, and it makes it very hard to type.
The recommendations, despite being amassed by a man very arguably acting outside his remit, have been submitted unamended to health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has until 1 February to consider whether or not to implement them. So we march again, next Saturday. Please come. You don’t have to live in Lewisham. Because if there’s one thing the dragooning of Lewisham into the service of a neighbouring trust’s debt shows, it’s that where you live doesn’t matter. Your beloved, priceless, well-sited hospital – be it ever so efficient, admired or attuned to local needs – could at any point be next in the stealthy process of breaking up the NHS and selling it, privately, for parts.