A golden moment for Lewisham NHS campaigners in Britain By Ruby Waterworth

1 August 2013 — Open Democracy

Today Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plans to cut services and close departments at Lewisham Hospital were defeated in the High Court after a fiercely fought grassroots campaign.

Picture: Ruby Waterworth

This morning Lewisham hospital campaigners waited for news from inside the Court, anxiously watching their phones. A little after 11:30 Barbara Veale of Hither Green got the crucial text message – victory for Lewisham Council and the Save Lewisham HospitalCampaign! As the cheers erupted, the sun broke through the clouds and shone on the jubilant crowd. Within minutes glasses of fizz were being poured and victory placards unveiled. 

In his judgment Mr Justice Silber announced that Hunt’s decision to downgrade the Hospital’s services was outside of his powers under the National Health Service Act 2006, and must therefore be ‘quashed.’ 

Silber’s remarks received loud applause inside the court, echoed soon after by the celebrations of Lewisham Hospital campaigners and supporters out on the street.

Dr Louise Irvine, local GP and Chair of the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign said she had been overwhelmed by the support of people around the UK: 

“This is an incredible day. We are delighted for every single person who has supported the campaign and those who will now continue to benefit from this extraordinary hospital. The support from thousands of people in Lewisham is a very real demonstration of the Big Society.

“David Cameron himself said that there would be no ‘top-down’ approach to closures and we appreciate the Court’s decision which should serve as a reminder to this Government to not forget their promises and not to underestimate those who they seek to represent.”

The fight to defend Lewisham Hospital started in 2012, when Jeremy Hunt took a neighbouring NHS Trust – South London Healthcare Trust – into administration due to financial difficulties, appointing Matthew Kershaw as the Trust Special Administrator. Hunt promised that there would be no “back-door approach to reconfiguration” and no reconfiguration of neighbouring NHS services delivered by other local NHS Trusts. 

The Save Lewisham Hospital group, made up of patients, community groups, doctors, nurses and other health workers formed to defend their hospital. They argued consistently that the Administrator’s powers over South London Healthcare Trust did not lawfully extend to interfering in Lewisham Hospital.

But Administrator Kershaw’s cost saving measures for South London included the downgrading of a large part of neighbouring Lewisham Hospital Trust, too – including the hospital’s A&E department, acute admitting wards and adult Intensive Care Unit, and the downgrading or complete closure of the hospital’s maternity facilities.

And in January this year Hunt accepted his Administrator’s proposals, telling the House of Commons that the reconfiguration of NHS services, would go “beyond the confines of [South London Healthcare Trust], across all of South East London”.

Rosa Curling from Leigh Day, the law firm representing the group with funding support from 38 Degrees, commented:

“Hunt broke his promise – his decision regarding South London included a substantial reconfiguration of services delivered by other NHS bodies beyond South London and in particular in relation to Lewisham Hospital. The court has today agreed that the Trust Special Administrator and the Secretary of State has no legal power to do this and has emphatically made clear that this decision should be quashed.”

The mood outside the Court before the judgment was increasingly excited and tense. Hospital campaigners had victory banners and placards at the ready – but optimism was held in check, many not daring to hope. They were filled with praise for the legal team at Leigh Day – and condemnation for the weakness of the government’s case. Campaigner Olivia O’Sullivan of Lewisham spoke of the prejudice in the Administration procedures that had been revealed in court so compellingly, particularly the “insubstantial research methods” the Administrator had used, ignoring evidence from clinicians, GPs and nurses.

Mark, a Lewisham resident, whose daughter – born in Lewisham Hospital – was taken to Lewisham A&E after an accident at school only recently, expressed fear that despite the strength of their case – and the strength of public support – the case would go against Lewisham. He spoke of a justice system designed by, and in favour of, a privileged few against ordinary people. As a teacher and trade unionist he’d seen many cases in which people had taken public officials to court; he’d seen occupations of hospitals to prevent closures in the past. 

Mr Justice Silber’s findings are an important message to campaigners such as Mark: that ordinary people can have a say in what happens to their community and force public officials to account for their actions.

Public support had been overwhelming. 25,000 residents of all ages, faiths and backgrounds marched on 26 January to protests against the Health secretary’s plans, with Lewisham hospital workers waving the protesters by car horns beeping in support. According to Labour Lewisham Councillor Stella Jeffrey, the hospital is the number one issue that comes up on constituents’’ doorstops. 

Heidi Alexander, Labour MP for Lewisham East, said “Seven months to the day of Hunt’s decision to decimate the Health Service,” today’s verdict marks a “very, very significant victory for thousands of people in Lewisham and across the country that puts right thatsense of injustice” felt by the community since Hunt’s announcement January. She praised the dedication of Lewisham Council and Save Lewisham Hospital campaigners, without whom “justice wouldn’t have been done.” 

Jos Bell, an NHS campaigner, economist and researcher, said: “I am feeling completely overwhelmed with victory. We always felt that we had right on our side and hoped that we had justice on our side. Now we know we do.”

Barbara Veale, visibly tearful after announcing the positive result to the crowd, said that the verdict means that “for now, it’s stuff…the government plan to privatize the NHS.” 

Campaigners were aware that those fighting to protect the NHS across the country were watching the outcome, hoping to inspire them to take similar action elsewhere.

Even as they assembled for a celebratory rally outside Lewisham Hospital this evening, campaigners know they also have to continue the fight in Lewisham, momentum boosted by today’s victory. Jeremy Hunt and the Department of Heath have suggested plans to appealMr Justice Silber’s verdict.

Dr John O’Donoghue, an A&E Consultant at Lewisham Hospital said that campaigners had been “vindicated” Lewisham. The hospital had been shown to be doing a good job, and to be financially solvent and popular. But he added that campaigners must “keep vigilant” against those who would try to find other ways to push through their aims. The case has also brought a much bigger issue to light; namely, whether a medium sized, local trust can survive the current climate in the NHS.

Today’s verdict has demonstrated that people want local services and that it is possible to provide these services locally, “Hospitals like us should be allowed to thrive and survive; we want certainty as soon as possible…to assure people that Lewisham Hospital is here to stay.

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