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Protesters staging the die-in, Bristol. Photo: William Hendy

Protesters staging the die-in, Bristol. Photo: William Hendy

In the wake of the junior doctors’ struggle, 150 NHS protesters gathered outside the Bristol Eye Hospital at the start of mid-week rush hour, reports William Hendy

The demonstration, called on Thursday by Bristol People’s Assembly (in co-ordination with local doctors and nurses), was originally scheduled for 5 October. The idea was to come out once again in mass solidarity with doctors against the imposition of dangerous and unfair contracts on the first day of the most extreme strikes they have ever planned. It was also meant to boost the morale of those on the picket and to drive the message home that we are all relying on them to stand firm.

When the disheartening news came in that the BMA had cancelled the strike action, we made the decision that we still had to do something. Without the strike keeping the NHS in the spotlight, it is even more important that the wider movement does so along with NHS workers who still feel able to fight. 

In light of recent developments, we broadened the protest to include the scrapping of healthcare students’ bursaries and government demonisation of migrant workers inside and outside the NHS, along with the underlying, continuing destructive cuts/privatisation agenda. Protest in this spirit seems all the more important given the government’s changes in rhetoric over austerity, which do not match the reality for services.

Fierce

Though smaller in number than our recent NHS demonstrations, the mood and energy was fierce. Local NHS workers, councillors and anti-war activists (calling for the scrapping Trident and direction of these funds to health services) gave speeches as people arrived and it wasn’t long before the chanting began. “Save, our, NHS, save our NHS” and “NHS, hands off it. It’s for people, not for profit”, with an excellent student-made banner to match.

We set off towards the town centre. With placards, drums and megaphone in hand, public support for the NHS was immediately noticeable. On arriving at the main square in the Broadmead shopping centre we stopped and, with our siren blaring, executed a first-rate ‘die-in’. As we dropped to the floor, highlighting the human cost of the government’s NHS attacks, onlookers gathered around applauding, taking photos and filming. The grim-reaper stood at the side holding a scythe and wearing a sign that read, “Don’t let me take the NHS.”

With a first-year medical student taking lead of the chants we headed towards Union Street, a busy junction linking Broadmead and Nelson Street in the heart of Bristol’s commerce. “Jeremy Hunt, shame on you, we deserve a future too!” Here, at the peak of rush hour we staged the second die-in to great effect, blocking traffic for ten minutes from all directions in the process, and co-ordinated with a live broadcast on ITV West Country news (top item), including an interview with activist Jack Hazeldine in front of the striking spectacle. A live video feed was viewed by 33,000 people on Facebook.

Overwhelming support

We then took the road towards the Harbourside roaring “Whose streets? Our streets!” And “Tories Tories Tories, out out out!”  Here we were confronted with an angry man who stepped out of his car and yelled at some student nurses, shaking his fist. He seemed to have forgotten that these wonderfully dedicated, caring young people could be forced into a lifetime of debt and poverty for deciding to follow a really human career rather than a capitalist one, in an essential public system under grave threat. They know all this and that is why they, and we, have to resist. Hostility was thin on the ground though overall, and we were moved by overwhelming support from passers-by.

Most strikingly, as we marched onto the central A38 road, a fire-engine slowed around the corner with men hanging out the windows; cheering was reciprocated with cheering. An amazing moment of solidarity.

Although getting darker, we dared a final die-in on the A38 by the Harbourside fountains; one of the busiest roads in Bristol town centre. In this exciting part of town we had impressed a group of young Bristolians who joined in exclaiming “I love the NHS!”

'Get political', unite and fight

Much of the energy in the protest came from a group of first year student nurses, one of whom said, “It’s just so awful that they’re taking away the bursaries. I wouldn’t have been able to start along this path without it. It’s really going to put people off the profession, and anyone who still decides to enrol will find it impossible to repay the massive debts at the end of the course.”

It reminded me of the anger I felt in 2011 at being in the last class of a state-sponsored course to get Biomedical Scientists into NHS laboratories. These are professions that we pursue for the calling, because we want to help people. The realisation that these cuts to training will have a profoundly negative impact on the profession that you love is a powerful motivator to get political.

We rallied at Harbourside for an excellent speech from a Southmead hospital nurse who has worked in the NHS for 40 years. Starting with how she was once a matron when such things existed, she articulately explained how working conditions in the NHS have deteriorated at ever-increasing rates. How she now counts herself lucky if she can take a break, and how she feels compelled to work unpaid overtime to ensure the safety of her patients every day.

Along with messages of solidarity from junior doctors ‘on call’, this was followed finally by an impassioned plea to unite for maximum resistance against the Tories’ destructive plans, from a medical student who has seen these conditions first-hand.

With the NHS facing its biggest ever crisis under a Tory agenda to tear it apart so they can pursue full-scale privatisation, now is the time to fight to save it.

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