By 03/12/2017 0 Comments

How a Mass Movement Overturned Plans to Close NHS Heart Units

Steve Score, Chair of the Save Glenfield Children’s Heart Centre campaign

Celebrations were taking place in Leicester city centre on the 30th November following an outstanding victory for the campaign to save congenital heart surgery at Glenfield Hospital. A mood of relief and of jubilation spread from campaigners to people across the region.

We hope this victory encourages campaigners across the country who are fighting to save the NHS.

Congenital heart surgery at The Royal Brompton and Harefield trust in London, which had its own campaign, has also been saved.

Glenfield’s closure would have left the East Midlands as the only region in England without such a highly specialised centre. Campaigners warned that the result would be devastating for families whose children’s lives are saved by Glenfield. This affected me personally as my son had open heart surgery there two years ago.

The campaign has involved thousands in a large number of demonstrations and meetings, the biggest march having over 2,000 on it. 130,000 people signed a petition. We helped 7,500 people to engage in a very tricky and complex ‘consultation’. This is all despite the difficulty of congenital heart patients being a small minority in a very widespread population.


NHS England (NHSE) told the hospital trust 18 months ago that they wanted to end surgery, but the threat had actually been hanging over the centre for years. A previous attempt to close a number of units around the country failed about four years ago following a judicial review, where the Independent Reconfiguration Panel advised the health secretary that it had been badly thought out.

NHSE then tried to close the centres again, but they have been forced into a U turn by a mass campaign that brought together a wide variety of people.

The success of this campaign belongs to the determination and hard work of patients, families, staff and campaigners. All played their part. Unusually for a local health service campaign, the enemy in this case wasn’t the local Trust or CCG. NHSE were proposing the closure and the Trust opposed it. It meant that some of us were standing alongside people we strongly disagreed with on other issues such as NHS cuts.

While it was crucial to have the arguments to put forward, the mass campaign to mobilise support was decisive. NHSE’s arguments were flawed, the key argument was about the number of operations carried out by each surgeon per year. These are incredibly complex, sometimes carried out on baby’s hearts the size of a walnut.

We believed that the targets they wanted to set, ‘standards’ in the jargon of NHSE, of 125 operations per surgeon per year were arbitrary. Some journalists inaccurately reported that it meant Glenfield was somehow unsafe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Glenfield has “outstanding outcomes” according to the Care Quality Commission.

The Trust was able to show that even these targets could be met in a short period of time. But as correct as our arguments were, it was necessary to put mass pressure on NHSE and the politicians to make sure we won.

We are proud of the role that Socialist Party members played in helping to win. Very soon after the threat was announced we called a public meeting to discuss building a campaign. We linked up with families and campaigners who had been involved in the battle to save the centre before. This included a local charity who fund many of the facilities at Glenfield, made up of working class people whose own families were affected. People worked incredibly hard getting the petitions signed and the consultation documents filled in. We reached out to staff and trade unions, and aimed to build widely in the community.

The Save Glenfield Children’s Heart Centre campaign was set up. Its first public meeting had 150 at it. From there we mobilised a demo of 1,500. We set up a regular organising committee which was inclusive of people from different backgrounds.

Importantly we linked community campaigners with the trade union movement, getting backing from a series of local and regional trade union bodies. We even had Len McCluskey, leader of Unite the Union, speak at one of the demos.

We also organised a series of public meetings across the East Midlands to go through the complicated questionnaire NHSE wanted filling in as part of its consultation. We even organised a day of action in dozens of schools who had assemblies on the congenital heart service, pupils turned up wearing red and sent their support.

We already had plans to go to the next phase of the campaign if the NHSE board meeting on 30 November stuck to their proposals. But all the hard work paid off, and we won!

Although NHSE dropped their plan to close two of the congenital heart centres, Glenfield and the Brompton, unfortunately it didn’t in the case of the third unit under threat, Manchester, where to my knowledge there was no real campaign.

In fact, the threat hanging over Manchester meant staff moving elsewhere to secure jobs, already resulting in a collapse of the service. This is an indication of the stupidity of the bureaucratic approach to these issues by NHSE. If you think something is wrong, why not discuss it first? Why start with a threat of closure? If the same had happened at Glenfield and Brompton it would have immediately resulted in a disastrous crisis for the service nationally. Not to mention a crisis in linked services such as paediatric intensive care.

It raises the need for genuine democratic control over the NHS involving the workers and users of the NHS. NHSE is in fact a quango set up to deflect the blame from the government.

All through the campaign NHSE said it was nothing to do with cuts, some in the trust accepted that. Yet we made the point that at every meeting of NHSE they would have discussed the £22 billion cuts they have been obliged to make by the government along with ‘rationalisation’ to try to achieve them. Even the board meeting on 30 November discussed these “efficiencies” two items before the congenital heart review!

Above all we believe the victory of our campaign proves that if you fight you can win. Some battles are already being won. In the East Midlands we have seen successes in the Chatsworth ward campaign for example.

But of course the war is far from over. These myriad of local struggles need to be linked up, which Health Campaigns Together is aiming to do. We need to unite the communities fighting for their services with the trade unions representing workers in the NHS and beyond in a national fight to save our NHS!



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