Thousands of NHS workers and patients marched through London and held a rally in Westminster tonight, protesting against the UK Government's Health Reform Bill. The message was "Save Our NHS". Many thousands more, who could not attend, chose to tweet!
The controversial Health and Social Care Bill is reaching the end of its rocky passage through Parliament, in the face of intense criticism. The Bill has been a difficult one for the coaltiion government, owing to initial opposition from the junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats. The Government appears to have united behind the Bill now, but fierce opposition remains from the Labour Party, some Liberal Democrat rebels and most organisations representing healthcare workers.
Tonight's rally was hosted by the TUC and, in an unusual but effective move, the meeting was broadcast live to the World via the internet with a request for supporters to "make a noise online" via Twitter.
Supporters clearly followed this advice with a huge number of tweets continuing throughout the evening, most with the hashtag #SaveOurNHS
As the event continued, supporters on Twitter began to question the lack of reporting of the event, and even the fact that the "hashtag" was failing to "trend".
One "tweet" from "Wendy Lee" read, "Lots of people suggesting #saveournhs being blocked from trending. Think they could be right." Another wrote "#SaveourNHS still not trending? Twitter's been gagged!" There was one tweet that said "#saveournhs is trending!" so it appeared it "made it" at one point, although its general absense from the "trending" list did cause confusion. At one point "Lord Owen" was trending (because he was speaking at the rally, watched by the twitterers) and yet #saveournhs was still failing to make it, even though "external" sources for trends appeared to have #saveournhs very high up the trends for the UK.
Other concerns were about the lack of coverage on BBC and Sky News. "Brian Joyce", for example, tweeted: "disgusted and angry at the #bbc today and the non coverage of #saveournhsrally #saveournhs #nhs" Other media outlets, like the Guardian, reported in some detail.
The event did not pass off entirely without incident. Some attendees heckled speakers, calling for direct action, and were removed. Some protesters wearing "Save our NHS" T-shirts were asked to turn them inside out by parliamentary security, although the Speaker later confirmed to Kerry McCarthy MP that campaign T-shirts are allowed in Parliament.
So what does this coaltion of health workers and patients dislike about the Health and Social Care Bill?
The campaigners' call is to keep the NHS public; they see the bill as being part of a broader plan to privatise healthcare in the UK. The evidence they point to for that is the significant increase in the role of prviate providers that the bill allows for, and the increase in competition. Other concerns relate to the fragmentation of the service under the bill and a profit motive behind providers of care and commissioners of care.
Another key criticism is that the government, it is argued, has no mandate for these largescale reforms (the Bill is longer than the original Act that created the NHS in the first place). David Cameron promised UK voters in 2010 "no more top-down restructuring in the NHS" and, it is argued, this is a major broken pledge. The government responds by arguing that "reform" is necessary to improve the service.
But after two hours of speeches from politicians, trade unionists, celebrities, doctors, nurses and midwives (many echoing Nye Bevan), what is likely to happen to the Bill next? Most agree that, barring a major change in attitude from the Liberal Democrat party, the Bill will become law. The Labour Party's Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, has confirmed that Labour will repeal the Bill when they are in government, but for those campaigning today, a lot of damage will already have been done by 2015. The protest will no doubt roll on, with many calling for a national demonstration. But time may well be running out for the opponents of these reforms.