The seventies in Britain saw the first wave of cutbacks in the National Health Service, carried out initially by the Tories, then continued through the 1974 Labour government, and the Thatcher government after 1979. As part of this policy, many small hospitals were closed, services shifted and generally centralised in fewer locations. One aspect of this was a decision taken to close specialist maternity hospitals and re-locate the services as units within general hospitals.
Obviously these closures and mergers not only took many services further from the communities they served (or abolished these provisions altogether), but also lead to job losses.
But it didn’t take place without resistance: there were a succession of occupations and work-ins all hospitals over the UK.
In September 1983, Hillingdon Health Authority decided to close Hayes Cottage hospital and Northwood & Pinner Cottage Hospital, in West London, to compensate for a £1 million overspend. There was a massive outcry from the local community and the decision that was condemned by the entire hospital staff. They were joined by local business and community groups, local churches, all local residents associations and Brunel university medical group.
The plans would have forced patients to travel further for care to Hillingdon hospital; however they were thwarted by the staff, who occupied both hospitals: in the end the local health authority backed down and the hospitals were saved.
The Hayes occupiers were linked to the Hillingdon Health Emergency Campaign, which formed spontaneously by members of the public who had attended a meeting of the Regional Health Authority on 27th September 1983. At that meeting, the proposed cuts in Health spending ware announced – including the proposed closure of the two Cottage Hospitals: Hayes and Northwood & Pinner.
There were immediate protests from the public gallery and four people were ejected from the meeting. Later an impromptu meeting of the protesters took place in the Civic Centre electing a committee which immediately went into action to arouse public opinion and protest against the cuts. Leaflets were produced; public meetings held; petition forms distributed, resulting in thousands of signatures. Letters were written to the press, M.P.’s, Councillors and other public figures inviting their support.
Trade union branches were heavily involved and asked to support, both financially and physically. The campaign stepped up its supporting activity following the decision by the Staff to occupy the two threatened hospitals.
On the evening of Tuesday 25th October 1983 the staff at Hayes Cottage Hospital occupied in a bid to keep the hospital open. This action was taken after a lot of thought but it was clearly the only way to stop the closure after other avenues had been exhausted.
The occupation received strong support from local people, with visitors coming round with food, supplies and money. Messages of support also flooded in from all over London while a delegation from Charing Cross Hospital came over to see them….
After a while G.P.s connected with the hospital started to admit patients again. The patients in the Cottage Hospital were solidly behind the work-in: one patient insisted that if any attempt was made to move her she intended to die in the ambulance…!
The occupiers’ aim was to force the District Health Authority to put their proposals for cuts out to full public consultation, so that the people of Hillingdon could have a voice in the sort of Health Service that was provided, instead of just a “totally undemocratic and unaccountable group of individuals dictating from on high.”
The Hayes occupiers also obviously keenly observed events at other recently occupied hospitals (notably St Benedict’s and Longworth), where patients had been suddenly moved out by force to break the occupation; one of their leaflets urged supporters to write “letters going to the DHA demanding that no violence will be used and that patients will not be forcibly removed against their will. This is a real possibility and it must not be allowed.”
Northwood & Pinner Cottage hospital was occupied the day after Hayes Hospital (26th October 1983), led by the Matron and COHSE Steward Jean Carey (daughter in law of Milly Johnson, famous Irish nationalist and Harrow Labour Councillor in the 60s/70s). They locked the front and back doors and excluded all non-medical management staff. The hospital continued to treat patients but under the management of clinicians and the local community. It was occupied 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with pickets outside protesting at the planned closure and the Government’s running of the national health service. The occupation had the support of almost the entire community. Local businesses sent food, milk, money and equipment. A carol service, which was led by a local councillor after the hospital’s chaplain had refused to take part, attracted 200 people…
Hayes and Northwood & Pinner had close links with other hospitals occupied around the same time, notably Thornton View in Bradford.
The protesters eventually took Hillingdon health authority to court after it insisted on the closure, and the High Court found in favour of the protestors. Lord Chief Justice Woolf said that the health authority’s actions had been wrong and awarded costs against it. Both occupations ended in late December 1983.
Both Cottage Hospitals were saved for the next seven years and provided a vital NHS service to their communities.
However in 1990, plans were revived to close Hayes, and despite a second occupation by the Hillingdon and District branch of COHSE, this time the Hospital closed. The NHS staff were guaranteed redeployment in other local hospitals. Hayes Cottage Hospital was turned into a nursing home following its closure.
Northwood and Pinner remained open for 30 years following the occupation, but it was closed in 2007.