Hospital workers and activist groups were among the demonstrators who blocked access to the bridge – which stands next to the Houses of Parliament – for nearly five hours. Organisers led chants including “NHS, not for sale” and “Public health, not private wealth”.
The Health and Social Care Bill, which passed in the Commons on September 7 and would lead to the most massive restructuring in NHS history, includes a controversial clause stating that the secretary of state will no longer have a duty to provide health service to all citizens. The bill moves to the House of Lords on Tuesday.
“If this bill goes through, we can wave bye bye to the health service as we’ve known it for the last 63 years,” said Dr. John Ashton, the North West Regional Director of Public Health and a participant in the protests.
He added: “Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley needs to either withdraw this bill now or refer it to the committee to be scrutinised properly.”
Demonstrators began gathering shortly before 1pm, and after an initial round of chants they sat down in groups in order to fill the roadway. A massive police presence covered both sides of the bridge, but the protests remained non-violent throughout the day.
While several people were stopped and searched, no arrests were made.
The large turnout also included anarchists and members of the Socialist Workers’ Party who sought to generalise the message of the protests to other struggles in which they are involved, but most attendees were passionate about what they saw as the preservation of the NHS. And while many demonstrators dressed in doctors’ scrubs to attract attention, the medical professionals present seemed more fearful of the effects privatisation would have on their patients than on themselves.
“Does it really matter how it affects the people who work there?” said Doug Green, a Hackney general practitioner. “I’d like to know a single example of anywhere in the world where private health care provides a good public service.”
The protest was largely informal, characterised by various groups in conversation and punctuated by a drum line performance and other music blasted through speakers. It was difficult to find actual members of UK Uncut; most protestors simply turned up because they had heard what was happening and supported the cause.
“The basis for support lies in the general public, and I haven’t talked to anyone who didn’t have a reason to be here,” said Kristian Bruun Andersen, who describes himself as a member of UK Uncut, which had called the demonstration – but only because he arrives at each protest with his drum at the ready.
Some tensions arose when, at around 4:30pm, police blocking off the south side of the bridge, allowed pedestrians to leave, but forced protestors to stay or walk back across to the north side to exit. According to one police officer – who told several people still holding signs that they could not pass – the fear was that protesters would move the demonstration down the street, perhaps towards Parliament.
Aside from several half-hearted attempts, none of the protestors attempted to forcefully break through the police barricade.
Only around 10 demonstrators remained seated on the bridge by 5:30pm, when police informed them that they would be arrested if they did not get up shortly. After some prodding, they did – but, from the sidewalk, a woman who identified herself as Rosebush gave one more round of chants, yelling: “Whose NHS? Our NHS!”
Towards the end of the protests, this reporter was unintentionally hit on the head several times by an elderly man waving a sign. A police officer, who witnessed it joked afterwards, saying: “Well, we won’t be able to call an ambulance for you because of all those NHS cuts.”
He added: “That’s what it’s coming to, isn’t it?”
*Photography: Sam Spokony.