Campaigners trying to save Lewisham Hospital started out fearing the worst.They did not know they would be successful because the government, once it makes a decision, is very hard to stop.
But the thousands of medics, patients and protesters who came together over 15 months from July 2012 to October 2013 did make a difference in ways which surprised even them.
Here TOBY PORTER looks at what happened, why it succeeded, and talks to one of the leading lights, now-retired child consultant at the hospital Tony O’Sullivan, who is now helping other professionals and campaigners save other branches of the most successful public innovation of the last century.
Organisers never know how many people will turn up to a rally. You can plan as much as you like, but until the moment arrives, there is always the thought that maybe no one will turn up.
So it came as a bit of a surprise when 10,000 people turned up to the first rally hoping to save Lewisham Hospital on November 24, 2012.
But the organisers were even more surprised when they topped that two months later, with a march of 25,000 people.
It was the biggest march in South London in more than 20 years. The Government might have tried to ignore it – but in the end, victory was secured through the sheer strength of feeling in this community.
It had been like that from the beginning.
Louise Irvine, a Deptford GP, had already started to pull together meetings of medics who would be affected by the closure, when it began to become obvious what Whitehall would try to push through.
When the first public meeting was held at the hospital, up to 700 people turned up and two overflow rooms had to be used. The experts lined up had to speak to each of the three rooms in turn.
Tony O’Sullivan, then a child consultant and later head of the campaign, said: “We had so many offers of help. We decided to accept every idea and see what happened. The Buggy army was hugely successful and got lots of publicity.”
On January 31, 2013, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, had announced in Parliament that Lewisham Hospital’s newly refurbished A&E, costing £12m, would be downgraded.
He also said all acute adult and children’s wards, adult critical care, emergency and complex surgery units would be closed, and maternity services severely reduced.
Hunt accepted the recommendations of Trust Special Administrator (TSA) Matthew Kershaw, who had been appointed three months earlier to take over a neighbouring trust in trouble – the South London Healthcare NHS Trust (SLHT).
The staff and the community were stunned – because Lewisham was a successful and solvent hospital in an entirely separate trust.
The Save Lewisham Hospital campaign was formed in October 2012 from local community members, patients, GPs, hospital and community doctors and nurses, local political parties, councillors and trade unionists – and that alliance was an essential part of the campaign’s success.
The Government tried to use a speedy and reckless process for the first time, not to remedy the trust in trouble but to take out a major hospital – Lewisham – serving nearly 300,000 people.
Mr Hunt claimed the plan would save 100 lives a year. More than 90 per cent of local GPs and all hospital doctors opposed the closures, yet Mr Hunt said that clinical opinion had ‘supported’ the measures.
He also said that the journey by ambulance or even by car would take only an extra three minutes.
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Woolwich is more than five miles away across one of the busiest parts of London – and it has no local railway station.
A petition which would eventually have 50,000 signatures was started by MP Heidi Alexander.
And those two large demonstrations brought the community together – and showed how strong the feeling was.
The campaign, along with Lewisham council, challenged the Government with a judicial review. The community raised the money, backed by Millwall FC and health service campaign group 38 Degrees.
The case was heard in July 2013. On July 31 the High Court ruled in their favour. The Government appealed.
At the beginning of the 2013, campaigners decided to hold their own People’s Commission of Inquiry in June 2013. It heard evidence from those who had been ignored in the plans.
Campaigning lawyer Michael Mansfield and his legal chambers helped to set up the inquiry and gather evidence from more than 50 witnesses.
Then when TV’s Question Time was held at Goldsmiths College in nearby New Cross, the campaign held a lobby.
Mr O’Sullivan said: “David Dimbleby and the panellists asked what it was about – and there was a question in the programme from one of our campaigners – is the NHS safe in David Cameron’s hands?
“The papers started picking it up and we got 25,000 people at a demo days later.
“It was astonishing. Former Foreign Secretary David Owen – whose family used the hospital – backed us. We were very surprised as he had previously backed market forces in the NHS. He told us he had changed his mind.”
On October 29, 2013 three judges in the Court of Appeal found that the Government had acted unlawfully in trying to close down most of the services at Lewisham Hospital – because it was trying to save the South London NHS Trust with a hospital closure which had nothing to do with it.
The campaign had beaten the Government, not once but twice.
Mr O’Sullivan said: “I didn’t get to celebrate – I was on the BBC 10 O’Clock news. We had worked ourselves into the ground on sheer adrenaline, losing weight and not sleeping. That night I just collapsed into bed, totally exhausted.”
The same campaigners are still fighting to defend the NHS from Government cuts and privatisation.
It is campaigning across London and nationally to stop the Government’s attempt to change the law that defeated it over Lewisham.
“Our own hospital will not be safe as along as these attacks are allowed to continue,” he said.
“This Government has a blueprint which is to close one in three hospitals – they had already closed Queen Mary’s Sidcup.
“Campaigning can have a massive impact.
“Lewisham is a really good hospital right in the centre of the borough. It had improved care dramatically and was very busy. There was a lot of fear among people who relied on it and cherished it.
“We did not know we would be that successful. We just did everything we could.
“Most importantly, the campaign gave the staff confidence. Hospitals threatened with closure can lose up to half their staff. But I was able to update all 3,000 employees weekly via email.
“After losses in the initial shock, we began to get applications from people saying the campaign had showed there was something special going on.”