March to celebrate and to save the NHS: diary date Sat 7 July

On a blistering bright summer’s day, the 30th June, Maddy Piper headed to London to join a march to celebrate 70 years of the NHS and to stand for a properly resourced, publicly funded NHS free at the point of use.

Here’s her account.

Marching to celebrate and protect the National Health Service: Maddy Piper attends Bath Quaker Meeting.

The crowd started to gather at Portland Place in London in front of the BBC. People kept coming, and it was a very cheerful crowd. There were drums, giant balloons, and more and more people. I stood on the steps of All Souls Church and watched as the crowd built. On the steps behind me was a lovely activist couple and it turned out that it was the lady’s 70th birthday. She had been born just weeks after the founding of the NHS in 1948. People came from all over the country, and all ages were represented. It was extremely hot so it was a relief when, after an hour of crowd building, we started our march towards Whitehall. I found a small group to join from the British Medical Association (BMA) behind a huge cloth banner which acted like a sail as we walked and which we all struggled to control. I had a BMA placard which read ‘Standing together for the NHS’ and a small flag distributed by UNISON which said ‘Happy Birthday NHS’ on one side, and ‘70 NHS’ on the other. I got chatting with one of the other doctors who had found GP work overwhelming and had moved to doing out of hours work only, working for a private company, which had two GPs to cover a whole county at night. She shared how under-resourced the service was, but how the lack of administrative work made the job do-able for her.

A major reason for going to the march was to celebrate the phenomenal achievement the NHS is. My 92 year old father leafleted around his village, asking people to vote for the NHS in 1948. Like so many working class families, he had grown up with illness, in his case chronic asthma, with no access to medical attention. Working men had some coverage for medical care, but their wives and families weren’t covered. My grandparents’ council house, shared a wall with ‘the Institution’, the work house which was the only, and much dreaded, hope for those in extremis. The NHS was part of a social movement that said that we all matter, that suffering should be relieved wherever it occurs. We are strong for a short time to help the weak, and we are all weak at various times in our lives. I work for Aneurin Bevan University Health Board in the part of South Wales where Aneurin Bevan grew up, in the mining valleys where infectious diseases killed children, childbirth killed women, and mining accidents maimed or killed the men, lungs choked with coal dust. To come out of the valleys as he did, educated at evening technical college, and to set in train one of the greatest social goods the world has ever seen is astonishing, and I wanted to give thanks and celebrate.

A lot of us feel that forces were ranged against Aneurin Bevan from the beginning, and those forces continue to work to end free access to health care. As we walked, we chanted various protests. The one I liked the most was ‘Whose NHS?’ to which we replied ‘OUR NHS’. It was wonderful to walk with the BMA banner, as the BMA opposed the founding of the NHS initially, but are now committed to a publicly funded universal health care service. The march stood for an end to privatisation which is very real to us in Bath where Virgin runs community care. We stood to end the internal market which has cost billions in added management costs to run. We stood for NHS staff to no longer be subcontracted to private companies, and for social care to be properly funded.

We walked past the seats of power down to Whitehall. I left the gathering then as the great and good took to the stage to argue for another 70 years and more for the NHS and went down into the steamy summer underground. Like others dotted through the crowds heading to the trains, I still had my placard with me, and as I sat in the tube train, the person next to me started to chat – no, not a Londoner – an American. The placard was a great ice-breaker, and I was soon hearing all about the American school system and health system, and the challenges the country is now facing. It was fascinating, and a lovely chatty end to a lively, happy, celebratory day.

Diary date: Celebrations of the NHS go on, and demonstrations to oppose its privatisation continue. There will be a march in Bath Sat 7 July, starting at Green Park Station. Come along!

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