It had been another grey morning in a long line of dismal August days, and the streets of Nottingham were still wet from the latest summer soaking.
I’ll admit, there was a part of me that feared what I might find as I headed out to meet the NHS march. I was afraid of stumbling across a sad, aged version of the legendary 1936 Jarrow Crusade it was honouring; a musty heirloom handed down through generations of waning engagement in politics and activism.
I arrived in the centre of Bulwell, on the outer reaches of the city, and joined a small crowd that had already gathered to greet the marchers. By then the dreary clouds were just loosening their grip over the Midlands sky and the sun was starting to flicker through.
At first it was just a pulsating dot on the horizon. But it kept on coming from around some hidden bend; a trickle, then a stream of people, heading our way.
Pretty soon our little huddle was caught up in a flash flood of bustling colour, sound and energy. Campaigners of all stripes filled the square: unions, healthcare workers, pro-NHS groups, the Labour party, the Green party, Women of the World, bearing the tribal colours of a dozen activist groups, together. My fears disintegrated with the clouds.
It was an electric moment, one that was to be repeated again and again before the march was through. The organisers, an all-women group of NHS campaigners from Darlington nicknamed the “Darlo Mums”, had set off from Jarrow two weeks before, heading all the way to Trafalgar Square to spread the word around the country.
I found Rehana Azam, one of the founders of the march, and as I walked along beside her I asked what had spurred her and the others into action. “The principles of the NHS aren’t intact,” she said. “We felt it was our civic duty to bring people’s attention to what’s happening to the NHS. The final straw for us was Clause 119 and the battle for Lewisham before that. If it can happen to one hospital then it can happen to any hospital”.
It’s just one of many vivid memories from that strange day in August. I remember the ambiguous mood; a blend of anger and hope. And the people we passed by, showing anything from bemusement to approval to expletive fury at what was unfolding before their eyes.
We had a chance encounter with a health care assistant who came out of her house just as we streamed past. Slightly baffled, she walked with us for a while. She told me about her own working conditions at a private health care company not too far away, where she works on a zero-hours contract, without holiday pay, sometimes picking up the full 40 hours per week she needs, sometimes only getting 15.
“There’s never any guarantee,” she said, before dashing off to work.
The next time I saw Azam it was in a very different scene. It was seven days later, at the finale of the march, and she was on stage in Trafalgar Square addressing a mass of supporters and onlookers. Wandering around the crowds in that altogether more tumultuous setting, there were some of the same faces I’d seen days before, but this time in among thousands more – GPs, nurses, registrars, consultants, activists, union members, academics and members of the public.
It was one last warm shiver of what I had felt back in Nottingham; the streets were filled again with the colours and sounds of a hopeful movement.
These are ominous times for the health service. This week, some of the UK’s most senior medical professionals warned that the NHS is at “breaking point”, morale is shattered, and the whole founding principles of the service are in peril after four years of Conservative reforms.
Yet David Cameron claimed at his party’s conference that he is the only one who can be trusted as the guardian of these principles. Very few in healthcare trust him any more.
With a total reorganisation of the system now well underway despite a solemn promise to the contrary, a tidy majority of new contracts going to private companies since the Health and Social Care Act came into effect, and the web of links between the Conservatives and the health care companies that reap these rewards emerging, the prospect of five more years of Tory rule turns those who oppose privatisation cold.
If the fears of campaigners on that march are realised, there is a very depressing future ahead. Campaigners like Dr Bob Gill, who described to me the gradual “grinding down of GPs by regulations and budgetary restrictions”, when I spoke to him that day, or Dr Lucy Reynolds who said the public “will only notice after it’s all been done and it’s too late”.
But there is hope, and the energy of the Darlo Mums marches on. A lot of the chatter in Nottingham, London and along the length of the march was about Labour MP Clive Efford’s Private Members’ Bill, which would go some way to rolling back the marketisation of the past four years, and “re-establish the Secretary of State’s legal duty to provide national health services in England”. Due to be debated in the Commons on 21 November, a fervent campaign to get it adopted is under way.
Speaking to me after the Trafalgar Square rally, Efford said: “People need to wake up to what’s happening to the NHS, and that it’s under serious threat. The marchers used this bill as a rallying cry as they marched down from Jarrow; I see it as a continuation of what they started”.
And there is plenty more to be done. Just last week, the campaign to get the NHS Reinstatement Bill enacted was officially launched, and in the next fortnight a major new independent documentary, Sell Off, written and produced by campaigning filmmaker Peter Bach, will be released.
As the nights draw longer and colder, the health service will be tested, perhaps as never before. The Darlo Mums’ crusade might be over, but our NHS has never been more vulnerable, or more in need of people to keep marching for it.