Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Joining the Anti-Austerity March: Can it Make a Difference?


I maintain this blog because I feel strongly that ambulance clinicians are increasingly being mistreated and taken for granted by the organisations they work for, by the public and ultimately by the government.

The intolerable impact of of this growing disregard is heartbreaking to witness as we ever more frequently read about patients who have been needlessly failed by struggling services and of dedicated staff who have had their ability to continue flogged out of them. The former circumstance is frequently the fodder of the mainstream media, but the latter rarely finds it way past sterile data on staff attrition and sickness.

Banging the drum for hard-working and undervalued ambulance folk has been a fairly solitary occupation and often it seems as I'm only ever preaching to the choir (a readership for whom I am very grateful). Many times I have wondered if the public even care, or if they remain oblivious and apathetic until the bubbles of their healthy existences are popped by unexpected illness or injury (at which point many who felt the service was inadequate would just point the finger of blame at the attending clinicians or their Trust).

After attending the End Austerity Now march in London on Saturday (20 June 2015), I feel buoyed by the evidence that clearly not all are so removed from the harsh realities suffered by a health service under siege (and indeed I know from experience that not all service users are unsympathetic to the challenges road staff face). An unconfirmed estimated 250,000* people marched from the Bank of England to Parliament Square to express their ire and frustration at government policies which are negatively impacting the lives of millions. And I am grateful for that.

*more conservative estimates state closer to 80,000

The march was so law-abiding, we even stayed on the correct side of the road (mostly)
Having never attended such an event before, I had some trepidation. Demonstrations rarely make the headlines unless there's trouble, and that was something I did not want to be part of. But I did want to be part of a movement which is pushing for positive change which could provide some relief to my fellow clinicians. I wanted to know that folk existed who were thinking about people beyond their own closeted existences. I needed my faith in humanity restored after our nation was plunged into a 5-year orgy of selfishness and greed by the general election results.

I felt it important to attend because the core principle of the campaign was to end austerity, a government-inflicted stranglehold on society which lies at the heart of the reason why ambulance services are struggling. The ongoing NHS 'efficiency savings' demanded by the austerity drive impact pre-hospital emergency services both directly and indirectly. As well as ambulance trust funding continually failing to meet rising demand year after year, leaving an inadequate amount of clinicians to deal with an impossible workload, healthcare cuts elsewhere inevitably filter back into the demand for ambulance services as local A&Es are closed, GP services buckle, patients are discharged too early to resolve bed shortages.

Sadly, this was the closest I ever got the the National Health Action Party group.
So I headed into London and kept my fingers crossed that I wasn't heading into an angry mass of violence and kettling, but something more life-affirming.

I was glad that I took the chance. What I experienced was like a carnival, a mobile Glastonbury festival, but with added politics. It was more a celebration than a confrontation. The overwhelming majority of people were just ordinary folk that you'd see in a supermarket or down the street. There were families, children, senior citizens, working-age adults of all varieties. It's fair to say that there were also some colourful characters, and some intimidating ones, but even menacing thugs have rights. Thankfully, I witnessed no trouble and the BBC report I saw subsequently suggested there was nothing more than a small bonfire of placards and a gang of potential troublemakers who had the temerity to move some barriers a bit. The police were stern but approachable and I was grateful for their presence. I stopped and thanked a few. After all, we were marching for them too.

The march itself was punctuated at the beginning and the end by public addresses from numerous figures; activists, politicians and celebrities. Although the hovering helicopters often made it hard to hear every speech clearly, I caught much of what was said by the likes of Natalie Bennett (Green Party leader), Dr Jacky Davis (consultant radiologist, NHAP and Keep Our NHS Public member, co-author of NHS For Sale), Len McCluskey (general secretary of trade union Unite), Martin McGuinness (Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland), Jeremy Corbyn (Labour Party leadership candidate, whose rousing speech was very well-received) as well as celebrities like Shappi Korsandi, Francesca Martinez, Mark Steel (sharp and sarcastic), Charlotte Church (whose words were compelling) and Russell Brand (who was, well, Russell Brand - perhaps with a dash of extra deference, offering himself as a servant to the cause 'in whatever manner you see fit').

Dr Jacky Davies addresses (some of) the crowd before they set off.
Overall it was an immensely positive experience and full credit should be afforded to the organisers, The People's Assembly. The rally has given me a sliver of hope that at least some people have a conscience and a sense of social responsibility to stand up for ambulance staff, other public sector professionals and the vulnerable people they serve.

Even though none of the quarter-of-a-million attendees hold the reigns of power, they all are constituents of those who do. Members of Parliament on both sides of the green benches must surely take note of such a loud call for social compassion and decency when it comes time for them to vote for or against a policy. If nothing else, I can at least take some solace in the fact that there were hundreds of thousands who do feel things are going wrong and need to be righted, even if their particular agendas varied from mine. There were blocs of marchers for womens' rights, students, immigrants, racial tolerance, the disabled, public sector workers, animal rights activists, even caravan owners(!) and many more, all united by the understanding that austerity is cruel and unnecessary and that we should find a better, more positive way to improve our society.

Various signs were handed out by attending groups.
At least I hope so, because the one quote that stuck in my mind was from one of the activist speakers whose name I didn't catch. With suggestions of general strikes already finding their way onto placards and into many trade union speeches, I found the message to David Cameron from the unknown speaker of 'If you make our lives unbearable, we will make this society ungovernable' quite chilling. That's not what anyone wants, any more than austerity. But I can also see that other options are becoming increasingly thin on the ground.

I can only hope that this march woke up some compassion both across the land and in the halls of power. This is still a democracy right? Not a 5-year dictatorship. Surely the population can still influence those who serve them in government?

Otherwise, either under the oppressive yoke of Tory policy or because of increasingly militant opposition, things are going to get worse for everyone.

Parliament Square full of people less than pleased with the usual residents of the nearby buildings.
This video by WellRedFilms gives a great overview of the event, showing the diversity and the sentiments of the participants. Well worth your time (even though the figures quotes regarding incoming cuts are vastly understated - the £12bn mentioned is for welfare alone, a further £22bn is hitting the NHS).



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