Stafford Hospital camping campaigners: We'll stay until our services are saved
They have been battered by rain, scorched by sun and spent night after night under canvas. And they say they're going to stay until Christmas if they need to.
Welcome to life at the Stafford Hospital campaigners' village.
For almost two weeks now, 40 tents have been pitched on the grounds of the hospital, with the Blitz-spirit protesters saying they will not move until services are saved.
Like-minded local supporters bring them bacon and egg butties and steaming trays of chilli con carne and spaghetti bolognese, as well toys for the children, extra comfy camping equipment and offers of washing their clothes.
Some of the campaigners have travelled from Cheshire and London to live in the village. It is estimated more than 1,000 people have visited in total, with around 30 sleeping over at any one time.
Around a dozen children have spent time at the camp, while the adults take it in turns to cook meals for one another and organise the donations of food, such as biscuits and boxes of cereal, from the local community. The village residents said they had been overwhelmed by the donations.
The protest has been organised in opposition to major services such as maternity, accident and emergency and paediatrics possibly being removed or downgraded at the troubled Weston Road site. Sixty beds are also being axed due to low staffing levels.
Bosses at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire and the Royal Wolverhampton Trust are set to take control of both Stafford and Cannock hospitals later this year. Walsall Manor has also seen an increase in patient numbers from Staffordshire.
Those who have travelled many miles to take part in the peaceful protest include Kevin Barlow from Congleton in Cheshire.
The 33 year old, who set up camp last Wednesday, joined the Support Stafford Hospital group on Facebook a year ago and claimed that downgrading services at Stafford Hospital would have a big impact on hospitals in other counties.
"The whole reason I'm here is because patients in Stoke are using Macclesfield Hospital in Cheshire," he says. "They are having elective surgery because of the waiting lists. It's like they don't care and just wanted to get it done and sort out the problems later. It's beyond unacceptable. They are playing with people's lives." Gymnastics coach and mother-of-one Rachel Dale, who has also been camped at the site for more than a week, added: "The way the community want to be a part of it, whether it is tweeting or bringing food supplies – it's humbling to see what's going on," the 45 year old said. "We've even had a lady coming in asking if anyone needs their washing doing.
"People are in this camp, waking up in the morning and going to work and then coming back. We will be staying here as long as it takes. I will be ordering my Christmas dinner."
Ms Dale, of Steadman Crescent, Stafford, stressed that services at the site needed to be saved, adding: "It terrifies me to think we might lose the services in Stafford. The distance people will have to travel to access services is going to be a death sentence.." Grandfather-of-two and retired nurse Barry Davies was one of the first to set up home and initially braved thunderstorms and torrential rain to camp out.
The 59 year old, of Sandon Road, Stafford, said: "It has grown into a nice little village. The support has been immense.
"People have been bringing us food. I will be here as long as it takes until they start listening to us. This is one of the best hospitals in the country. The major problem is that the hospital is badly underfunded. This is a growing population. It doesn't make sense to say that we don't need this hospital."
Another long-standing camp resident is Geoff Small, of Barlaston Close, Stafford. The 42 year old said staff have shown their appreciation: "You can tell they are overwhelmed by the camp. When we are first setting up you could see the amazement on their face. They have been totally supportive."
One of the many visitors to the site was photographer Alys Straw, of Beech Way, Stafford.
The mother of one, who gave birth to her son Elliott at the hospital five months ago, said had been given top quality care following complications and wanted services to be retained.
Stafford Hospital was deemed to be financially and clinically unsustainable by health bosses. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt approved the measures to strip services from the troubled site. It came after a critical public inquiry.
Maggie Oldham, chief executive at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust said: "We respect the rights of campaigners to express their views on the future of services. I have received reassurances from the organisers that there will be no disruption to patients or visitors."
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