It was time to march again. On a bright, sunny Saturday in January, hundreds, no thousands, assembled in the centre of Lewisham to march past Lewisham Hospital, and on to Mountsfield Park. They were marching to defend themselves from having to share one accident and emergency department with 750,000 people by fighting against the closure of Lewisham Hospital including its new accident and emergency department, intensive care, maternity and children’s services.
They were determined to save Lewisham hospital by influencing health secretary, Jeremy Hunt’s final decision. Not so easy. Comments made during the consultation period and the groundswell of public and medical opinion had been largely ignored so far.
I joined the march at Ladywell, expecting to be somewhere near the back. Actually, I was easily in the front quarter. Ahead, I could see the purple balloons of Unite: behind was a long procession of predominantly red banners. Everyone was very upbeat. Cars on the opposite side of the road hooted in support. Those unable to walk far lined the pavement to cheer the marchers on. There was street theatre, choirs and drummers along the way to keep us entrained.
Suddenly, we were passing the hospital we were trying to save. Staff, presumably on their lunch break, had come out to watch the march and cheer us on. It was a poignant moment. We were marching to save not just their jobs but their life’s work. We waved to each other, and the marchers passed on.
As we walked up George Lane, I began to realise the breadth of people who had turned out: the unions, health workers, “professional protesters” and Joe Public; parents with their kids, many claiming to have been helped or had their lives saved by Lewisham hospital. As well as children in slings or pushchairs, I saw people in wheel chairs, on crutches or using walking sticks, some coloured white. Many carried homemade banners. Local organisations had been invited to adopt a banner and many carried banners bearing the name of their business or community organisation. Not only was it good publicity, it was good to know that they were standing with us.
We reached the park gates and started the slow procession into the park itself. Information and food stalled lined the route. Portaloos had been provided for those who needed them. Stewards urged people onto the grass and to make their way down to the specially erected platform. It was at this point that I parted company with the main march. Grannies don’t do mud, and I followed the other oldies round the park and out the next gate. I felt bad. So near, yet so far.
But I’m glad I did. As I started back down George Lane, I faced the remaining marchers still coming up the hill. Some were tired and could barely put one foot in front of the other. Others were in groups laughing and talking with their friends. The atmosphere was very relaxed and friendly. I rounded the corner into Lewisham High Street – still they were coming! It was unbelievable. I stopped to chat to friends and urge them to complete the march. The cars were still tooting their support and the staff at Lewisham hospital were still out in the cold waving and cheering everyone on.
Finally, by St Mary’s Church a dozen or so Police brought up the rear. Thanks guys for everything you did to help us. Thanks to the drivers who patiently sat in their vehicles while the march went by. Thanks to those who had to wait for their delayed buses. Thanks to the organisers and those who helped to get the word out, including local councillors and local and national media. And special thanks to you if you marched, made banners, tweeted and were part of that procession, estimated to consist of twenty five thousand people.
Whatever the outcome, we are part of the changing history of the NHS.