By Angelus, submitted on Tue, 25/04/2006 - 02:52
Feature on Lanarkshire Heath United Protest
Hands Off Our A&EI hear a loud yell in my direction, out of the corner of my eye I see an over excited man approach me waving a copy of the SSP newspaper â€˜The Socialist Voiceâ€™ in his left hand. â€œHi Stephen itâ€™s me, Peter!â€? I throw him a knowing wave and casually walk towards the crowd. Itâ€™s Saturday Morning and Iâ€™m here to interview local Scottish Socialist campaigner Peter Guthrie, and the crowd that have gathered are supporting the Lanarkshire Health United campaign against the proposed closure of one of Lanarkshireâ€™s three A&E units. â€œIâ€™m so glad you could make it.â€? Peter smiles: â€œItâ€™s a great turnout, donâ€™t you think?â€? I nod in agreement. The crowd have gathered outside the local supermarket on Graham Street in Airdrie to begin a march which will end up outside Monklands Hospital. I watch the crowd closely as we are ushered into line by one of the campaignersâ€™ and stewards. â€œDo you want to carry a placard?â€? Peter asks, waving a sign in front of me, which carries the slogan â€˜Hands Off Our Hospitalsâ€™ â€œNo thanks.â€? I say, â€œMy hands are full.â€? He looks disappointed. I point towards my camera and notepad just to reassure him I wasnâ€™t against carrying a placard; I just really had my hands full. He seems to accept this and smiles back. â€œSo whatâ€™s the plan for today?â€? I ask Peter: â€œWell, weâ€™re going to start the march in about five minutes and head towards Centenary Park across from Monklands Hospital, where we will hear some of the campaign organisers speak as well as Carolyn Leckie. Itâ€™s a good turnout so hopefully we will get our point across.â€? The Lanarkshire Health United protest was the second protest of the day which aimed to highlight the scale of public anger over NHS Lanarkshireâ€™s plans to close either Hairmyers or Monklands A&E units, with Monklands being the â€œClear preferred optionâ€?. A public consultation on the proposal to close one of Lanarkshireâ€™s A&E units- which began in late January and is expected to end on the 28th April; cited that problems with lack of consultants and the need to bring working hours into line with European legislation are among the reasons given for the need to reduce the number of A&Eâ€™s in Lanarkshire. This protest follows several public meetings regarding the planned downgrade of Monklands A&E and has seen opposition from many members of the public as well as many MPs and MSPs. Ray Gunion, of Lanarkshire Health United, said: â€œThere is no consent in Lanarkshire for these proposals. The accident and emergency units at Monklands, Hairmyers and Wishaw must all be retained.â€? It is clear the people of Monklands fear the planned closure will spell disaster for the community. I have been on many demonstrations before, some for trade unions and some for other political reasons but something about this protest was different. All around you young children protest with their parents, old ladies wave their placards with a look of righteous indignation. All campaigners genuinely concerned about the future of their community and its health. Once infamously described as â€œThe sickest place in western Europeâ€? Monklands is the sickest area in Lanarkshire. Rates of heart attacks and strokes are higher here than almost anywhere else in Britain - only Glasgow is worse. Although Lanarkshireâ€™s health record is shocking, the figures for Airdrie and Coatbridge are even worse. So why is it important to campaign for all three A&E's, I ask Peter: â€œThis is only the beginning. For too long now NHS trusts have been getting away with downgrading crucial facilities, using excuse after excuse. Bellshill Maternity is a classic example of what will happen to Monklands, Hairmyers or maybe even Wishaw, in the future. Monklands is built on public land but the NHS trust sees it as ripe for selling.â€? I, like many other people in Lanarkshire was born at Bellshill Maternity. The hospital was closed almost five years after Lanarkshire Health Board became a trust and at the time the reasons for the closure where cited as â€œsubstandard facilitiesâ€? and that â€œconsultant units where in a significant minority.â€? Despite the fact that Bellshill Maternity was the most efficient in the area. The hospital subsequently closed down in 2001 and was demolished in 2003 to make way for housing developments. I ask Peter if he sees the same thing happening to Monklands Hospital: â€œItâ€™s a depressing thought, but itâ€™ll only be a matter of time. Many of the current units in Monklands already depend on the A&E for support and once thatâ€™s gone the hospital will eventually close.â€? After about 20 minutes the crowd eventually reaches Centenary Park to thunderous applause. I look around and see many people shaking hands with each other and you canâ€™t help but get the feeling they believe something has been achieved here today. Peter is busy loading a PA system onto the back of a lorry, which I figured must be a make- shift stage. I see MSP Carolyn Leckie approach the front of the crowd with many other campaigners and councillors. I notice two old ladies waving Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser flags and I approach them to ask them how it went: â€œWeâ€™ve been here since 10 Oâ€™clockâ€? one of them proudly announces: â€œbut the march didnâ€™t start till 11.30.â€? I respond: â€œoh we went to the Labour demonstration, not this oneâ€? she grimaced while pointing towards a young man in a Socialist Party hoodie. I look around for Peter to ask him about the other protest but heâ€™s still busy on the stage. I notice one of the campaign organisers still clutching his megaphone and decide to approach him. â€œHi, my nameâ€™s Stephen,â€? I say: â€œHi, I'm Kevin.â€? He responds seeming rather distracted. I offer a handshake encouragingly, but heâ€™s too busy messing about with his megaphone. I ignore this and continue: â€œI heard Labour organised the other march this morning, I thought they were part of this one.â€? He looks at me, and laughs sarcastically: â€œYeah well you would think that but they tend to have their own agenda.â€? I sense he has a lot to say about the issue, so I push a little further and ask about the reasons behind it. â€œ Lanarkshire Health United are campaigning against the closure of any of the A&E units but the Labour MPs and councillors realise that one of them is going to close eventually so to save face-and voters, they are campaigning only for the A&E in there constituency.â€? He continues: â€œWe asked them time and time again to join us as a united front but the answer was a resounding â€˜noâ€™. Then they go and organise theyâ€™re own-last minute-protest. I just donâ€™t understand it, it smacks of hypocrisy.â€? The Labour protest also saw the unprecedented step of Cabinet Minister and Defence Secretary, John Reid attending, despite the tensions this may cause between the Scottish Executive and Westminster. No doubt many ministers in Scotland will be annoyed that their policies are being publicly challenged by a member of the Cabinet. Â§Labours: MSPs Elaine Smith, Karen Whitefield and Cathie Cragie also attended â€œHands Around Monklandsâ€? event. All aimed at saving Monklands primarily, although if they succeed, neighbouring Hairmyers A&E, in East Kilbride-whose MSP, is the Scottish Executiveâ€™s Health Minister, Andy Kerr; would be under threat. I attempted to address this issue when I contacted MSP Elaine Smith. She said: â€œMany of the contributions [in the proposal] were not impartial and the patient contributors were weighted towards Wishaw and Hairmyers despite Monklands being the busiest A&E and the one which counts the largest population base and the most deprived communities within its locale.â€? She added: â€œIf difficult decisions must be taken then they should reflect the fundamental principles of the NHS and be weighted for their impact of reducing social and health inequalities. A thorough appraisal based on that principle would undoubtedly have discounted Monklands as a candidate for downgrading.â€? After talking to Kevin I begin to feel confused as to what was really going on, had this decision already taken place? Was the whole public consultation a nice way of breaking the bad news? I considered these questions carefully and recalled there was uproar on the release of the public consultation document, which was entitled â€˜A Picture of Healthâ€™. The NHS trust, which had debts of Â£20 million, hired a PR company for Â£35,000 which was made up of BBC broadcasters and was used to soften the blow of the casualty unitâ€™s closure. This was surely clear evidence that the decision had already been made. Surely they wouldnâ€™t waste taxpayers money if there was a chance they would change there minds? On reading â€˜A Picture Of Healthâ€™ I wondered if NHS Lanarkshire has looked at their own figures on the health of the people in Lanarkshire, did they realise the irony of this title? As I read on I began to recognise the same arguments for closure are being used today as they were five years ago; â€œlack of consultancy unitsâ€? surely if this is the case the answer is to recruit more consultants-not to close vital units. The same promises are also being made. Lanarkshire health care will improve as a result of â€œstreamliningâ€?-instead they are, and will, get worse. Socialist MSP, Carolyn Leckie said: â€œThis is an area most in need of health services, most in need of specialist services and, unfortunately, the most in need of accident and emergency and intensive care. But this is the very area that is being targeted for removal. That is not acceptable.â€? As the last of the speakers wind down I look to the crowd to try and capture the feeling from the day. Many are debating among themselves, some Labour voters debate with Socialists. All, however, seem deeply distressed by the threatened closure of the hospital. On looking over the crowd there is a strong sense of community, many non-political people turning up to show their support. This being an issue I feel may change how some people in Lanarkshire will vote in the local elections. As many of the demonstrators begin to leave I look out for Peter to thank him for his time. He is busy handing out leaflets and talking to other campaigners. Do you think all this made a difference?â€? I ask: â€œI hope so. When local officials ignore the people again and again, they will protest, and it is little demonstrations like these that can sometimes make all the difference. I hope it does make a difference the community really needs this hospital.â€? As I looked at Peter I could tell he really cared about the future of the community. I thanked him and began to walk away when he called me back: â€œHey Stephen!â€? he yelled. I looked back: â€œWant to buy The Socialist Voice?â€?