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The NHS is a crucial part of a civilised society

Bernadette Hyland talks to veteran communist and healthcare campaigner FRANCES HOOK

FRANCES HOOK, veteran communist and campaigner, will be 80  this year but she is still out campaigning: last week, for instance, she was out leafleting about the proposed GP contracts which will break the link between patients and family doctors.

She was born Frances Clarke into a political family — her mother was Annie was daughter of Scottish Communist Party founder, Malcolm McFarlane. 

Clarke, alongside her four siblings, was brought up in a family that had at its heart a democratic ethos.

Her parents talked to them about politics but were not dogmatic. 

“We were encouraged to discuss politics and make up our own minds.” 

The only holiday the whole family had was in 1948 when they went to a socialist camp in Hampshire. 

At the age of 14, encouraged by her father, she joined the Young Communist League (YCL), which enabled her to travel across the eastern bloc taking part in youth festivals, although to get to a youth festival in Warsaw she had to take in washing to raise the money.

Hook says of the YCL: “I was able to travel across Europe, meet people from a broad range of society, and gain a political education.”

In 1954 Clarke’s father died, leaving her mother to bring up five siblings. She returned to work as a hospital orderly and promptly became shop steward. 

She left school at 15 and, after doing various clerical jobs, decided to become a cadet nurse. Over her long career she has worked in most areas of nursing which has confirmed her belief that good health is a prerequisite of a civilised society.

In 1972 Clarke was a sister at the London Mile End Hospital but she was also a NUPE steward and recruited 150 nurses into the union. 

By 1976 the hospital was threatened with closure. Staff and the local community were galvanised to oppose the closure, which was part of a time of heightened political activity within the NHS. 

Nurses, together with other health workers, took part in actions including strikes to call for better pay for all health workers as well as opposing the closure of hospitals including the London Mile End and Guy’s. 

Hook believes that the 1989 white papers Working for Patients and Caring for People signalled the end of the NHS as imagined by Nye Bevan. 

“They introduced the concept of the ‘internal market’ which would go onto change the structure and organisation of the NHS for the next decade.” 

Hook was involved with the Hands off Guy’s Hospital campaign in 1989 as staff, unions and communities fought the new regime.

In 1993 when Guy’s Hospital, where she worked as temporary acting director of midwifery, became a trust, the realities of the new system were played out. 

“The chief executive called all the directors into a meeting and told us that there were to be 700 redundancies.”  

A campaign forced the management to rescind the redundancies of the midwives, but Hook herself was made redundant. 

She feels that the maternity services were seriously damaged by the new policies — nationally as well as locally.

Her marriage to Communist and trade union activist David Hook in 1968 led to a partnership through which they continued their politics, both at work and in their community in Greenwich. 

Supported by David she stood as the Communist Party candidate for Greenwich in the 1983 general election.  

They travelled together extensively across the eastern bloc, meeting people and making friends. 

Hook is sanguine about the massive changes that have taken place.

“Communism does not have all the answers and it is down to people themselves to decide what kind of society they want to live in,” she says.

Hook retired from nursing in 2001, but stepped up her campaigning for peace and opposing the privatisation of the NHS. 

In 2012 alongside Greenwich Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) and UK Uncut, she chained herself to the front of the House of Lords to highlight the NHS Health and Social Care Act.

Greenwich KONP is a small independent group whose membership includes many former nurses and midwives. 

The group holds meetings, lobbies locally and issues leaflets to expose the massive changes going on in the NHS.  

Hook has a bagful of leaflets and never misses a chance to spread the message, whether she is on a train, on a bus or just out shopping.

Looking back at past campaigns, she comments: “My experience in other campaigns such as at Mile End and Guy’s Hospitals is that we can win but we need to include everyone in the campaign — trade unions, patients, doctors — all who make up the community. That is how we can win.”

Their group, along with other campaigners, regularly target the NHS England building where the CEO Simon Stevens is based. 

And their latest campaign is publicising NHS England’s long-term plan to break the link between GPs and their patients by amalgamating GP practices into large primary care networks. 

Hook sees this as part of the drive towards an insurance-based medical service. 

“Patients will lose their right to see the family doctor and instead will be referred to a paramedic or one of a new variety of less qualified healthcare workers such as an associate nurse.”

Hook feels that the NHS is a crucial part of a civilised society. 

“Investing in preventative public health is as important as having decent housing and education.”

Join Frances Hook at www.999callfornhs.org.uk.

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