A short history of a successful example of creative direct action against healthcare rationing in a British hospital.
30 years ago: Rita Ward and the Great Northampton Hospital ‘lie-in”
We hear a lot these days about the ‘creeping privatisation’ of the NHS. We have a Labour government committed to turning our free National Health Service into just another business along the lines of the American model, which sees poor people refused medical treatment because they can’t afford it.
Although the current leadership of the Labour party is more vicious than most in its attacks on the NHS (foundation trusts and PFI schemes being their current weapons of choice) such thinking is, unfortunately, far from new.
As far back as 1977 Northampton General Hospital was the scene of a battle against a Labour government’s attempts to marketise the NHS which saw a brave housewife and rank and file trade unionists take on the government and NGH management.
Rita Ward, of St. James’ Park Road, Northampton had been in severe pain for 18 months and was waiting for a desperately needed gallstones operation. She was told she would have to wait another year - unless she coughed up £500 (a lot more money in those days) in which case she could have it that weekend!
Rightly outraged at this economic apartheid Rita determined that she would get the operation at the same time as she would have done if she was rich. On 16 July, flanked by her family and local trade unionists Rita walked into the hospital, removed the coat which was covering her nightdress and lay down in an empty bed. The hospital workers were informed of the situation and showed true working-class solidarity, proceeding to treat Rita as they would any other patient, and refusing orders to move her.
The next day it was national news, with journalists descending on NGH to cover the story. The right wing press screamed about ‘queue-jumping’ but others, notably Paul Foot, pointed out that there shouldn’t be a queue in the first place, and that if there is one you certainly shouldn’t be able to get to the top of it by being rich.
Ward told reporters: "I am staying put until they operate. I cannot stand the pain any longer. The maddening thing is that I could have the operation done tomorrow privately for £500."
The outcome was that Rita got her operation in the next few days, and no other patients had operations cancelled or deferred. As the Daily Mail and the Labour government tore their hair out Rita Ward, Northampton housewife, and health workers at Northampton General gave the country a lesson in how direct action and working-class solidarity can defeat the attempts of the bosses to deny us our basic rights.
The Northampton Healthworker newsletter commented in 2007: "The small victory we won in Northampton 30 years ago has, however, been followed by many defeats. With the NHS being slowly run down and sold off, PFI schemes and ‘foundation hospitals’ introducing market principles into our health service and more and more NHS services being ‘contracted out’ to private profiteers how many more are being told, like Rita, that they have to pay for health care, but are unable to take the action she so bravely took?"
- Northampton Healthworker newsletter, 2007
- The Glasgow Herald - Jul 18, 1977
Article adapted from the ‘Northampton Healthworker’ newsletter, 2007, and slightly edited with additional information by libcom in 2016