TENS of thousands of people turned out in Stafford today to march to protest plans to downgrade Stafford Hospital.
As they gathered on the grounds, community leaders, campaigners and hospital workers addressed a community which came out in force to show their pride in the troubled hospital and their determination to make loud and clear that they would fight to retain services in Stafford.
The Bishop of Stafford Geoff Annas delivered a rousing speech to start the proceedings saying that on a day like today words seemed ‘superfluous’ and they ‘very presence of so many’ members of the community spoke far more eloquently than anyone could about the importance of keeping Stafford Hospital fully open.
“When I first spoke about the proposal to make Stafford a local hospital by removing the emergency, acute and maternity services understandably enough I was asked 'well what's it got to do with you and the church.
“The answer is very simple, faith communities are about god, but they are also about people, you and me, about caring for people, about having compassion for people, standing alongside people and speaking up for people who do not necessarily have a voice of their own.
“I'm standing in front of you here today to speak up very clearly on behalf of the 270,000 people who are served by Stafford Hospital, and on behalf of the 1,000 men and women of our armed services and their families soon to be moving back into Stafford and on behalf of all of those soon to be moving into the thousands of homes that are planned to be built in this borough in the next couple of years,” he said.
“I am not interested in scoring party political points, that's not what this afternoon is about but I have to express my confusion when the prime minister is able to say in the light of the welfare reforms that he is about creating a fairer society.
“My question to the Prime Minister is where is the fairness to the people of Stafford.”
He said: “We all know the terrible and tragic things that have happened in this hospital that were highlighted by the Francis Report.
“Of course our sympathies go to all who believe that their relatives died unnecessarily,” he said. “They are very much in our thoughts this afternoon and my heart went out particularly to the one person I saw objecting to this march and the reason she was objecting was because her husband had died here.
“Having said that, this appalling situation was not the fault of the people of Stafford. So why should we be being penalised.”
Rev Annas said there would potentially be more unnecessary deaths if the current proposals became a reality.
“ Because of my job I am constantly travelling up and down the A34.
“You don't need me to tell you that there are many times when that road is so clogged with traffic that even the paramedics can not get through and the same is the routes to Cannock, to Wolverhampton, to Burton, to all the places where you and I and our relatives and the people we love are going to be shipped if this hospital is downgraded,” he said. “I also believe that this is going to put an enormous strain on these other hospitals.
“We've already heard from a lady who was saying that there are simply not the beds at Wolverhampton to cope with all of us. None of those hospitals were built to cope with such a large number of people.
“Lets be very honest, of course this hospital serves many who live in comparative affluence but there are real pockets of deprivation in this borough. They are there.”
“People who are facing a reduction in the bulk of their income, be it through welfare reform or whatever, are now going to have to find the money to make these extra journeys to these hospitals, how are they going to do that?
“Mrs Smith, whose husband is the driver and who is taken into the acute care ward up at North Staffs hospital, how is she going to get up there?”
“In all the discussion about the proposals to move these facilities elsewhere, not once have I seen any mention of providing a free and regular bus service from this hospital to all the other hospitals where we are shipping our patients out to. Have you seen it?”
“Rather than build on the excellent work that is done here and invest in this hospital and make it into that centre of excellence that we want it to be that we know it can be, it seems as if there are certain people who want to continue to make Stafford a byword for everything that is wrong with the NHS. I don't want that. Do you want that?”
“I have to say that I actually feel very privileged to be the Bishop of Stafford.
“I deplore the way that this fine town and county is being besmirched by those who constantly refer to what has happened here, even if reporting on problems in hospitals hundreds of miles away.
“Every account they bring in Stafford Hospital,” he said. “To make Stafford a name that is associated with all that is wrong and negative has major implications for investment, not only for this hospital but for the whole borough and indeed the whole county. Stafford will be dismissed in people's minds as a place of failure.”
He said the way to overcome that was for the administrators to acknowledge the good work that was already happening and the efforts being made by staff to turn the hospital around.
“It's about affirming those staff and making sure the good news stories are heard.
“It's about rebuilding the confidence of the whole community and actually reaching those who haven't turned out this afternoon.
“It's not only about continuing to offer the full range of medical services the people of this area need but ensuring that these services are of the best possible quality with facilities that will continue to attract staff of the highest calibre.
“Staffordshire is described as being the creative county, and we stand together this afternoon to make a very important statement.
“Let everybody realise that we are not going to let any government of any political party or anybody else turn Staffordshire into the neglected county.”
Rev Annas urged the trust special administrators, the secretary of state for health and all those responsible for making decisions about the future of Stafford Hospital to recognise those decisions were ‘not just about the life or death of people in this community, but about the life and death of the very community itself.’.
“I ask them to listen to what is being said, to take note of the strength of feeling that we have expressed this afternoon and to retain Stafford as an acute hospital of which we can all be proud and we can all be thankful.”