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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 16:51 GMT
Why are NHS staff and ministers poles apart?
By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

NHS Together campaign bus
Campaigners drove round Parliament Square trying to drum up support
It was a little like a parallel universe.

While government officials have spent the day churning out ever more glorious statistics about the NHS, the staff who run the service have taken to the streets.

From the bowels of the Department of Health's HQ, the familiar tales of falling waiting lists and increased staff numbers have been recounted.

But outside on the streets of Westminster, doctors, nurses, cleaners and other support staff have been protesting at what they see as disastrous policies.

Pensioners and health staff marched round Parliament Square waving placards saying "Save the NHS", while a double-decker bus circled the House of Commons drumming up support for the cause.

A stone's throw away, at a packed Methodist Central Hall, a rally heard from union leaders and frontline staff about how Labour's policies were destroying the health service.

Buzz words

The buzz words became "creeping privatisation" and "fragmentation" as campaigners rallied against deficits, PFI hospital build schemes and privately-run NHS treatment centres.

The day's protest has been organised by NHS Together, an alliance of 16 health unions which have come together to oppose the direction the NHS is heading in.

Such unity among the health service's union movement is unheralded and begs the question: how can the views of government and health staff be so polarised?

Dr Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist and member of the British Medical Association, said: "The problem is that the policies are being driven by ideological dogma.

Not only did it put the mother and baby at risk, it took an ambulance out of the London service for six hours
Andrea Shields, of the London Ambulance Service

"There is no evidence that increasing the use of the private sector and scaling back on staff and hospitals will be beneficial.

"No-one outside Number 10 believes it will, and so far they have refused to properly consult with us, so it is not surprising the government have not got staff on board."

Listening to the campaigners, the problem seems to be that in many cases workers have had negative experiences of the government's policies.

Andrea Shields, a London paramedic, told the rally about a case recently involving a woman who went into labour prematurely at 29 weeks.

Unable to locate a free neonatal bed in the London area after what she says have been cuts, her colleague was forced to drive to Portsmouth three hours away to get the care needed.


"Not only did it put the mother and baby at risk, it took an ambulance out of the London service for six hours."

And in a direct plea to ministers, she added: "All we want to do is to be able to do our jobs. Listen to us, the front-line staff, not the fancy management consultants."

But will the day of protest make any difference?

Union officials and health workers also spent the day lobbying MPs - by mid-afternoon the queue outside the House of Commons was snaking down Millbank.

Many went to see MPs at the House of Commons

Ruth Levin, a London regional officer for Unison, met with her local Labour MP.

She said: "He did seem sympathetic to our concerns, particularly over the private sector, but it really requires a whole sea-change in the way politicians are handling the NHS."

However, she acknowledged campaigners were facing a challenge as many MPs speak out sympathetically when their local hospital feels the pinch, only to continue voting for the government's policies inside the Palace of Westminster.

As for the government, it seems there will be no slow-down.

As protesters took to the streets, ministers were touring the television and radio studios saying there was no turning back.

As Health Minister Andy Burnham put it: "Actually, rather than putting the NHS under any threat, this is the NHS poised to make one of its biggest leaps forward in its history."

Unions explain the concern about targets and cuts

NHS pay rise plans prompt anger
20 Oct 06 |  Health

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