One man's walk to Westminster in defence of the NHS receives a warm welcome in Chorley
Reassurance is a commodity which the NHS dispenses almost as regularly as medicine. But James Corbett is seeking reassurance about the future of the health service itself.
That, says the 43-year-old, is why he has embarked on a 400-mile walk from Glasgow to Westminster, where he will present a petition to politicians calling for a guarantee that the NHS will never be privatised.
Chorley marks the halfway point on his month-long trek and it is there that he met some kindred spirits who share his concerns.
Several members of the campaign group Protect Chorley Hospital from Cuts and Privatisation joined James on the Central Lancashire leg of what has otherwise been a lonely journey - and a few dozen more turned up at the gates of the hospital to welcome him.
The English teacher from the Wirral said he was “humbled” to have found such support - not least, because campaigners had helped ferry his hated backpack.
“It weighs about 17kg and I’d like to ritually burn it,” James laughed.
“But on a more serious note, I’m feeling great because of the welcome I have had from the people of Chorley,” he added, as horns from passing vehicles rang out at the entrance to the the Euxton Lane hospital.
James explains that his marathon mission was prompted by nothing more than an appreciation of the NHS - and a fear that it will not always be around to continue the work which it does.
“We all know people who have been affected by illness or disease - one of my best friends was hospitalised for four months with fluid on the brain, my Mum suffers from chronic arthritis and my next door neighbour’s son has cerebral palsy.
“None of them had to worry about a financial payment or whether their insurance would pay out. I don’t want to see that Americanised system come in, but I think that’s where we are gradually heading,” James reflected.
Challenged about the likelihood of such an outcome for a national institution which has held firm for 70 years, James admits that privatisation is “not happening yet”.
But he fears that the process, like his walk, will be “slow and incremental”.
“At the moment, the NHS is free at the point of need and my mission is a positive one - it’s to keep it that way.
“And the only way to do that is to get all of the main political parties to guarantee it.
“The 2012 Health and Social Care Act removed the legal responsibility of the Secretary of State [for the NHS]. I want the original 1946 legislation to be reinstated which says that the minister has a legal duty for UK citizens and their health.”
James hopes to arrive at Westminster on the day parliament returns from its summer recess on 3rd September - where he will challenge party leaders to support his call to keep the NHS in public control.
“Why wouldn’t they sign it?” he asks.
James accepts that the wholesale privatisation which he fears is a different prospect to the outsourcing of NHS services to private companies - a process which dates back to the 1990s.
Figures produced by the House of Commons Library show that the proportion of work being carried out by private companies which have been handed NHS contracts has remained largely constant over the last five years - standing at 7.3 percent of the total. However, the cash value of that work has increased by more than a billion pounds to £9.2billion since 2014/15.
Meanwhile, recent moves - both locally and nationally - towards increased collaboration within the NHS have indicated a shift from the competition-driven approach to procuring services which was strengthened as recently as 2012.
But Jenny Hurley from the Chorley Hospital campaign group sees a link between a "privatisation agenda" and the part-time status of the hospital’s Accident and Emergency unit, which she and fellow campaigners have been demanding be fully re-opened since 2016.
"Over the last three years, we’ve learned a lot more - we’ve seen how private companies are taking over our services and how they are restructuring how they deliver the NHS. It’s moving away from a healthcare package to a business package in order to privatise it,” said Jenny.
“The fact that [Chorley A&E’s temporary closure and subsequent part-time operation] is down to staffing and funding shows it is being done by stealth.”
James told the campaigners that he hoped their example would inspire others to support him on the rest of his journey - but he said no other part of the country could ever be “as good as Chorley”.
At the halfway stage, James says his body is holding up well - and he hopes it stays that way for the sake of the health service which he is walking to support.
“It would be a real irony if I had to be rescued by the NHS,” he laughed.