Health campaigner & Socialist Party candidate for Botanic in South Belfast PADDY MEEHAN analyses the continuing crisis:
Twice this year so far the Accident & Emergency Unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital has been at breaking point with extra staff and bed space being rushed in. No extreme situation or major incident had been declared – this was the result of Stormont cutbacks on our health service.
People’s lives lost – the inevitable result of cuts
The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) had announced that nursing staff and doctors had been encouraged to “stop the clock” to falsely meet impossible 4-hour and 12-hour waiting times. As we go to press it has been confirmed that at least five people have died waiting for emergency treatment; this may be the tip of the iceberg. Paramedics have described waits of hours to sign patients over to the A&E at the Royal – reducing the availability of ambulance services. No-one can be in any doubt that there is a crisis in our emergency departments. However, this is a manufactured crisis that was and is preventable. Only the political will to break with the policies of austerity is required.
In 2010/11 the Mid-Ulster, Whiteabbey and Belfast City Hospital A&E’s were closed initially as a ‘temporary measure’ according to the Health Minister Edwin Poots. of £800mn in health cuts.
Poots and the Health Trusts argument ran that the service was poor, couldn’t be staffed and that merging services in a “Centre of Excellence” where services are centralised on one site be more effective. This ignored the significant increase in distances in rural areas like Mid-Ulster – putting some people outside the ‘Golden Hour’ (the time it would take by an ambulance to get patients to an A&E unit) – and the immense strain it would place on the understaffed A&E’s that remained. Poots and Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew (who supported the closure) argued that the closing of Belfast City A&E would be in line with sufficient staff at the RVH to meet demand. These were downright lies. There is nowhere near enough staff to deal with patients needs at the RVH and many other A&E’s across the North.
Unfortunately, everything the Socialist Party, the Stop the Cuts Campaign, the trade unions and anti-cuts activists warned in 2010-11 has come to pass. People have suffered huge waiting times on trollies, unbearable pressure on staff and in people have paid with their lives. Instead of accepting the impact of these cuts and re-opening the A&E units, Poots (who is implementing cuts voted through by the Assembly Executive representing all the main parties) has actually moved to limit the opening hours of the Downe and Lagan Valley A&E’s, making the situation even worse.
Health service being run down for privatisation
The cuts to all of our health service is part of the austerity measures being dictated from the Tory / Lib-Dem government. It serves two purposes. Firstly, it takes money out of public services to pay off the debts of the banks from 2007/08. Secondly, it runs the service down to allow private insurance and health companies to step in to make profit from health services. Why pay a private company for something you already get as part of your National Insurance contributions unless it isn’t functioning? The privatisation of the NHS is underway right across Britain.
Stormont may have to deal with the Tory/Lib-Dem agenda of austerity but it doesn’t mean they have to implement it – never mind with such zeal as Poots has shown. If the Assembly Executive was serious about opposing cuts to “frontline” services as they claimed when seeking votes in 2011 they would be call for a mass campaign involving the unions, health staff and the public – linking up with campaigns in Britain – to bring down the “Con-Dem” government. Instead the politicians have merely decried how horrible it is and jumped into introducing them. We can learn from campaigns such as that in London where Walthamstow Hospital was threatened with closure. Last year, socialists, trade unionists and local communities launched a campaign of protest to oppose the closure of their local hospital – organising major demonstrations and protests – and succeeded in forcing the government to back down and keep the hospital open. This shows that when mass opposition is organised it is possible to defeat health cuts. The health cuts have caused an emergency in the health service and ordinary people are losing their lives. It is therefore urgent that the trade unions movement in conjunction with anti-cuts campaigns and genuine community groups begin to build for a major demonstration to save our health service now.