On the morning junior doctors staged their first ever all-out strike, an alliance of National Health Service (NHS) patient and staff groups stormed the revolving doors of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in the UK in an attempt to shut down a global conference of private healthcare executives being hosted there.
Organized by Healthcare Business International, a news service that covers "private healthcare services in Europe and across the Developing World," the conference, entitled "Breaking Barriers," has been convened to discuss "the private health care services industry internationally." Today, the execs talk about breaking into the health services of Europe. Tomorrow (Wednesday), it's the world ("Emerging markets from Latin America to East Asia"). Suitcases with wheels appeared to be mandatory.
At Great Portland Street tube station, the activists, some of whom work in the NHS, assembled their gear. The idea was to get through the front doors and into the building, where they would let go of a cluster of balloons carrying rape alarms and stink bombs—a super-annoying ploy that would surely make holding a meeting about privatizing healthcare untenable.
"Our point is that we will not stand for the creeping privatization of the health service and that we will take militant action to reclaim it," said one of the organizers, a trainee doctor who asked not to be named for legal reasons.
"At a time when vital services are being cut, the NHS is being made vulnerable to vulture profiteers," said Zvzanna Ludzik, of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
Mona, who has been a doctor for eight years, was protesting next to the sunlit splendor Regent's Park because of what she called the "constant erosion of the NHS". This erosion, she said, has been done in the name of weakening the NHS in order to sell it off. "This has been very well concealed and has all been done by stealth, but it is happening and we are here to show that we won't accept it."
At the front door of the Royal College, the activists chanted "Public health, not private wealth" and, "Don't shit on the health service." They failed to break the resistance of a three-man security team guarding two narrow doors. A crowd formed and there was no way through. The group ran round the building to a side door. One of the security teams alerted a colleague using a walkie-talkie.
At the side door, a motley crew of RCP employees, including a couple of chefs, a security guard, and an AV technician, blocked the activists' path. This confrontation was much more heated. The chefs got very excited, perhaps relishing a chance to do something that wasn't baking 300 salmon fillets for a bunch of businessmen.
The AV technician became emotional. "Don't you understand that we agree with you?" he cried as he inserted himself between an activist and an angry chef. Later he spoke to me in defense of the RCP. "If you don't speak to all sides, how do you find out what the truth is?" he asked. I guess listening to every side sometimes means listening to people that the other side describe as "vultures," "privatizers," and "profiteers."
He told me to read the statement put out by the RCP on the junior doctors' strike, so I did. The statement, issued by Jane Dacre, president of the RCP, and Dr Carol Postlethwaite, chair of the Trainees Committee of the RCP, refers to an "awful situation for patients, doctors, and the NHS to be facing… one that reflects the level of distress junior doctors feel currently… We are under-doctored, underfunded, and overstretched."
Back outside the front door of the Royal College, David Kirby, a retired General Practitioner who was part of the activist group, spoke to a representative of the RCP, a clinician, and nurse by training who said he'd given his life to the NHS. "It's a shameful day for the Royal College," Kirby told him. Like his fellow activists, he believes the RCP hosting a conference like "Breaking Barriers" lends legitimacy to the creeping privatization of the NHS and provides a (safe) space for private healthcare companies to organize and strategize.
The RCP's representative said that they were merely accepting a booking from an outside company. He spoke of "one of the saddest days in the NHS's history" and of, "sharing the same values" as Kirby.
Nearby, a policeman joked with some of the activists: "I agree with everything you're doing, just don't pull the doors off!"
No one was arrested. They didn't make it into the building, but the organizers of the action felt as though they had made their point to the private healthcare industry and to the Royal College of Physicians. Not to mention to some flustered chefs.
The group that stormed the RCP believe that democracy is broken and that most people recognize this. They believe that some doctors do not understand that they are in a battle that is bigger than them and their wages. That this is about a broken economic system and a culture of privatization that is stripping British society to the bone.
At the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, a more sedate strike picket was happening. Amrutha Sridhar, a junior doctor, told me that she believes striking doctors do understand these things and that, while there was a lack of faith in the British Medical Association in the past, this time they have been attuned to the views of their membership. She told me that, growing up as the daughter of two doctors in India, where healthcare is largely privatized, she saw the devastation that such a system can cause both to neglected patients and overworked healthcare professionals.
"This strike is not about money, it's about safety," she said. "I think that selling off parts of the NHS to private firms is disgraceful. We're really struggling in the NHS right now. There are so many things that could be fixed, but the government seems to want to make it worse."
In Whitechapel and Regent's Park, the horns of passing cars blared in support of activists and striking doctors. "People realize the NHS is struggling," Sridhar told me. "I think we hope we can achieve change from within the system," she added.
The activists at the RCP were keen to show their support for the junior doctors strike, and were hoping their action could hammer another nail into the coffin of NHS Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's career. While these groups may differ in their methods, they share a common belief that the NHS is being mistreated by private healthcare vultures, and that this is something that needs to stop.
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