Less than a week before the NHS’s 70th birthday, tens of thousands of people marched across London in the blazing Saturday heat to celebrate the health system that is a point of pride for most of the general public.
But while marchers eulogised the NHS, this party was also very much a protest at the crisis engulfing the service.
The demonstration attracted NHS workers, celebrities, politicians, union leaders and members of the public alike, with many wearing ‘born in the NHS’ t-shirts and waving homemade signs and banners.
Despite the musical performances and glorious sunshine, the event felt more like a mutual cry for help rather than a party.
As those who had marched from Broadcasting House reached Downing Street, impassioned speakers took to the stage to highlight the cost of privatisation, chronic underfunding and workforce shortages.
Among the calls, BMA chair and GP Dr Chaand Nagpaul told the demonstrators: ‘We know the NHS has been systematically and scandalously starved for years.
‘It lacks doctors, it lacks nurses, it lacks beds. It’s not just the channel that separates us from our European neighbours but a vast funding gap equating to 35,000 hospital beds or 10,000 doctors.’
Junior Doctors Committee chair and GP trainee Dr Jeeves Wijesuriya warned: ‘This can’t go on. For too long NHS staff have done their best for our patients, knowing they haven’t got the tools for the job, consistently going that extra mile – but there’s just no more left to give.’
A rallying cry was heard from the leader of the Labour Party MP Jeremy Corbyn, who urged the crowd to use their determination to defend the NHS ‘to the ends of the earth and beyond’.
Many GPs were among the sea of people, some having travelled from across the country.
Lancashire GP Dr David Wrigley, who sits on the BMA Council and is the Doctors in Unite chair, travelled down that morning to take part.
He told Pulse of the ‘huge threats with savage cuts and closures, more privatisation, significant underfunding and millions of pounds wasted on private finance initiative deals and useless management consultant reports across the NHS’.
His concerns were echoed by a chorus of others.
‘The ethos of free for all health service is heading towards a hierarchical service where private companies are being subsidised by the government to join such as Babylon,’ said Tower Hamlets GP Dr Archana Spahn.
‘This is disrupting the core values of primary care and fragmenting the service… I hope to make the public aware that the NHS is at a pivotal point of irreversible change if we don’t campaign and let the government know that we don’t like the direction they are taking.’
Enfield GP Dr Gary Marlowe took the opportunity to criticise prime minister Theresa May’s recent funding announcement, saying that it is ‘too little too late’ and that the NHS will continue to ‘haemorrhage funds through ill-advised reorganisation and private involvement’.
So, what will come of these pleas for change? I guess that will depend on who is listening.
But perhaps one positive that can be taken away from those few hours when tens of thousands of people, including doctors, nurses, paramedics and physiotherapists amongst them, turned out to show that they care, is that all hope has not yet been lost, and that there are still ‘folk left with the faith to fight for it’.
Because to borrow another phrase, it’s easy to be cynical, to accept that change isn’t possible, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter – but if we give up now then we forsake a better future.