Feet aching and a big dent in my shoulder from supporting one side of the 3m wide and 2m tall Staffordshire UNISON branch banner, I returned earlier from the rally and march in support of Stafford and Cannock Chase Hospitals, both part of the Mid-Staffs NHS Trust of recent tabloid infamy.
And before the inevitable suggestions in certain dark corners of the media that the event involved “the usual trade unionists and other misfits” (copyright: BBC) plus a bloke and his dog, be it known right now that while the police themselves estimated attendance at 30000, Stafford’s MP Jeremy Lefroy suggested 40000 may be more accurate. There were many families with children and a lot of very game and determined older folk. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many pushchairs and walking sticks on a demo.
Now I’ve been on many marches – it did rather go with the territory in my previous occupation – but it took me a while to work out why this one was unusual. And as we progressed up the hill toward the hospital, it came to me – the lack of sound.
On every previous event, those involved accompanied their protest with whistles, chanting, horns, even vuvuzelas. Here, thousands of local people, many of whom had never before experienced mass protest, had become engaged with a cause dear to their hearts and were marching with quiet determination toward a vital resource it had become their expressed common purpose to save.
Each had their story, their personal reason for doing this. Emma told me of her fear that, should either of her sons need emergency treatment, without Stafford Hospital they would have to go to either New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton or the University Hospital of North Staffordshire in Newcastle under Lyme, both around 17 miles distant. An elderly man I met in Market Square was so pleased with his increased mobility following knee replacement surgery at Stafford Hospital and that he was able to stand for a long period at the pre-march rally.
Most poignantly, I spoke with the mother of 15-month-old Orla who, having recently discovered that she could walk, was doing as much of the route as she could on her own two feet. But Orla was only able to do this because the staff at Stafford Hospital saved her life; hers had been a difficult breech birth, and she would not have survived the longer journey to New Cross or UHNS.
Stafford has a large population, soon to increase further with the expansion of the MOD base at the edge of town; it needs its hospital, with a full range of services including 24-hour A&E cover.
The population of Cannock and its surrounding communities is not dissimilar. Its hospital, though lacking A&E, is equally necessary – the physical signs of mining industry may have largely disappeared, but its medical shadow remains.
Staffordians and Chase folk alike campaigned long and hard for their NHS hospitals, and will not give them up without a hard fight.
David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt would do well to remember this.