Pathology Lab Pathology Lab. Photo: Healthwatch Hackney

Threatened privatisation at Homerton Hospital has sparked a local campaign. Ellen Graubart reports on how government plans for the NHS are being resisted

At a meeting called by Hackney Healthwatch, local health campaigners and NHS staff came together with members of the public to discuss the future of Homerton Hospital’s outstandingly excellent pathology lab which is under threat of being moved out of the area, of closure or privatisation following the disastrous collapse of plans to expand and upgrade the unit.

Building work had begun in October 2015 on the upgrade, when the company suddenly went bankrupt, and the builders left the site – leaving a huge hole in the ground – and in the budget.  It was revealed, to everyone’s shock and disbelief, that the project had not been insured, and that this particular company had been given the contract in spite of the fact that it was known to have a poor track record. The Homerton Hospital Trust (HHT) has confirmed that £2 million was wasted on preparatory work on the new lab.

A question and answer session followed the speaker’s introductions and contributions from the panel. Unanimous support and grave concerns were expressed by the audience at the prospect of losing the pathology lab, and the panel promised to relay their concerns to the HHT.

At the end of the meeting, volunteers came together to plan the next steps in the campaign. These included organising a demonstration to take place at the next meeting of the HHT, letters from doctors to be sent to the local press, and actions using social media. To finish off, group photographs were taken for use in spreading publicity for the campaign on social media.

The HHT is at present reviewing options for the future of the pathology lab, but no one knows what will happen, as there has been no feedback as to what the position is now. It is feared that the trust will privatise the service or move it far away from Hackney.

It is essential to have a pathology lab on the Homerton Hospital site: closing it would have a detrimental effect on what is a top quality unit run by dedicated staff working in harmony with the whole hospital. Hundreds of thousands of local people rely on Homerton Hospital’s pathology lab to process blood and urine samples accurately and speedily, enabling doctors to diagnose and treat their patients.Patients with sickle cell and thalassemia, diabetes, HIV, TB and other related conditions particularly need this service.

Outsourcing to a private provider would not only result in special treatment for private patients, leaving all other patients waiting longer periods for results of tests, it would also lead to a situation that exists in the US where hundreds of unnecessary tests are done simply to enlarge the profits of the private companies running the units.

Closing the lab would achieve a proportionally small and temporary saving in one small area of the hospital’s budget, but the costs in outsourcing, the extra time spent by doctors and staff in arranging for samples to be transported to pathology units elsewhere (which have to be physically transported, unlike emails or texts), and the loss of valuable expertise gained over a great many years, would add up to much greater costs (although it would be difficult to assess concretely in financial terms).

The speakers on the panel included Hackney Councillor Jonathan McShane; Chris Mullett, Homerton Hospital staff union rep and Biomedical Scientist in Pathology; two local residents and patients; Frank Wood Unite branch secretary from Kings College Hospital and Biomedical Scientist in Pathology since 1987, and Dr Nick Mann, local GP.

The general public is at last becoming aware of the reality that the NHS is facing a serious threat of total dismemberment and privatisation. This process began three decades ago, which successive governments have facilitated, and in which the media have been complicit by their silence or by denigrating NHS services. It is usually only when people find that a local service they have generally taken for granted is under threat that they realise the need to come together and fight to save it. The NHS is at a critical point in its history, and is very near being destroyed as a public service, free and available to everyone.

The latest threat to the NHS comes in the form of government plans to ‘transform’ local health and care services, the Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) for North East London, which was submitted to NHS England in June.

“The STP will pave the way for significant changes to NHS, public health and care services in Hackney and the wider northeast London area. Under the plans, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) local councils and hospitals will be expected to work more closely with their neighbours to spread financial risk. NHS England also requires that the plans ensure ‘sustainability’ of health and care services against a backdrop of austerity.”

Hackney Healthwatch newsletter, July 2016

There has been minimal public involvement in the plans and no meaningful engagement of local authorities to date, which arouses suspicions that STP is yet another budget-cutting and squeezing ploy.

A return to a pre-NHS UK would condemn millions of UK citizens to a very bleak future in which only the wealthy will have access to vital services. We must fight to make sure this nightmare does not come to pass.

What you can do:

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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