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|Protesters took over a bridge near Parliament in opposition to changes to universal healthcare [Chris Moffatt]|
Activists in London have blockaded Westminster Bridge in front of Britain’s parliament building in protest of a government plan to overhaul the country’s universal healthcare system.
More than 2,000 protesters occupied the iconic bridge on Sunday in a sit-in organised by the group UK Uncut. The demonstration, advertised as “Block the bridge, block the bill”, was described by activists as an attempt to stop the proposed Health and Social Care bill from being passed by parliament on Tuesday.
If the bill is passed, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) would be changed from its current system that provides free services for all citizens to a market-based system that would allow insurance companies to compete with government healthcare.
“The idea is that by symbolically blocking the bridge that goes across the River Thames from parliament to this big hospital [St Thomas’ Hospital], it stops the legislation from going from the parliament to be implemented in the National Health Service,” said Dr John Ashton, the director of public health for the northern county of Cumbria, who spoke to Al Jazeera from the bridge.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Service told Al Jazeera that authorities would help to facilitate a safe protest as long as it remained peaceful.
“We’ve been speaking with protesters for weeks now to ensure their legal right to protest is maintained and obviously that’s balanced with the needs of the wider public,” said the source who declined to be named. “At the moment, it’s not causing a massive disruption.”
|A health worker takes up residence on a tripod at the
protest at the British parliament [Chris Moffatt]
Lucy Davies, a UK Uncut activist, told Al Jazeera she was aware of potential consequences of a non-permitted political rally.
“We didn’t seek permission to occupy the bridge, so this is an act of civil disobedience, and at the moment they [police] seem to be facilitating us being on the bridge rather than asking us to leave,” she said.
The healthcare bill passed through Britain’s House of Commons on September 7 and is scheduled to go before the House of Lords, Britain’s upper chamber, on Tuesday.
“It will, in effect, privatise the NHS and turn the National Health Service into a national health market,” Mark Arnold, a protest organiser and UK Uncut spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
“The effect of these reforms will be disastrous for the NHS. Essentially, a whole public administration will be taken out and be given to private companies.”
St Thomas’ Hospital, directly across Westminster Bridge from parliament, is one of the UNited Kindgom’s oldest medical facilities, a fact that has ben underscored by the activists.
On its website, UK Uncut wrote: “If the bill passes, hospitals like St Thomas’ will be sold to private corporations, the staff put on private payrolls and beds given over to private patients. Despite the government’s lies, this bill represents the wholesale privatisation of the NHS and, with it, the destruction of the dream of comprehensive healthcare provided equally to all.”
Defenders of the Health and Social Care bill say it is a much-needed measure to bolster the NHS in its efforts to care for patients.
A Department of Health spokesman told ITV News: “The principles of our modernisation plans – patient power, clinical leadership, a focus on results – have been widely supported, as reported by the independent NHS Future Forum.
“We accepted all of their recommendations to strengthen the bill, but the most destabilising factor for the NHS would be greater uncertainty and delay of reform to the ultimate detriment of patients.
“We simply won’t secure the future of the NHS without this bill.”
The bill, however, has been criticised by the British Medical Association which said it would present “unacceptable risks to the NHS” and has called for the proposals to be withdrawn.
Dr Ashton said if the bill became law, he expects it “to become very difficult to intervene with critical services that are failing, because the responsibility will become fragmented between lots of different provider organisations, and I think that there are whole areas of health and social care that will become at risk”.
The British protest comes as more than 90 cities across the United States have planned or begun to “occupy” their financial centres in protest against the alleged mishandling of the US financial crisis.
“We’re really inspired by what’s going on in the United States, what’s been happening in Spain, what’s been happening in Chile, all across the world,” said Arnold.
“Right now, in the middle of Westminster Bridge, there is a meeting going on to discuss how we can occupy the London Stock Exchange, and that’s very much in keeping with what’s happening on Wall Street.”
Police said a second group of protesters, occupying the nearby Lambeth Bridge, were held in “temporary containment” while items worn to conceal their identities were removed. All protesters have since been released, according post on Twitter by the public order branch of the Metropolitan Police.