She made a name for herself campaigning to save Lewisham A&E, but she is perhaps better known to the people of Lewisham as a friendly face at Amersham Vale doctor’s surgery. Now, having worked as a GP in the area for over 20 years, Dr Louise Irvine is turning her hand to politics and running for European Parliament.
As chairwoman of the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, Irvine was heavily involved in the struggle to overturn Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s decision to downgrade the A&E and maternity services at the hospital last year. But change at a local level is not enough for Irvine.
“If something’s wrong you need to do something about it, not just wring your hands,” she says. “A situation is only hopeless if you don’t do anything about it. I believe in people power: no great change of law has ever happened without people pushing for change.”
Irvine is no stranger to political campaigning. Even before the Lewisham Hospital campaign began two years ago, she previously applied the “people power” principle in 2001, when she and a group of local parents set out to tackle the school place shortage in Lewisham, campaigning to get a new secondary school and to change admissions policies at selective schools to take more local pupils.
Irvine is standing for the National Health Action Party (NHAP), which was formed by doctors and health workers last year amid concerns over the impact of the Health & Social Care Act on health services.
“The NHS is being privatised and the majority of people aren’t aware of that,” she says. “People don’t know enough to be as alarmed as they should be.”
And running for European Parliament isn’t as distant from the issues facing the NHS on the ground as might first appear. Brussels is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with America that would render any privatisation of British services – the NHS included – irreversible under international law, as well as exercising great legislative powers over environmental issues, the testing and approval of medicines, and packaging on tobacco.
“I think people have been waiting for this to happen because it’s needed,” she says. “We feel that the parties in Government need to see a defence of the NHS and see that it can actually win votes – it’s the only thing likely to shift them towards a stronger position.”
But for Irvine and the NHAP, actually winning a seat on the European Parliament would be an added bonus. Really, the election is about raising public awareness and media coverage.
“If I get elected then that’s even better. But even if I don’t get elected, if we get the chance to get some of this – the risk, the privatisation, the cut backs, PFI – out to the public then that’s great,” she says.
So far the reaction has been positive, though Irvine tries to keep her politics and her patients separate. “I’ve had lots of friendly messages from colleagues to say ‘well done’ and ‘we’re behind you’. It’s early days though.”
But despite her clear determination, becoming a politician was never part of her career plans. “I’ve always been interested in politics and campaigns, but I never in a million years thought I’d run as an MEP. It just wasn’t an ambition.”
Instead, Irvine wanted to become a doctor from a young age. “I just really liked the idea of it. I wanted to help people and do something that was useful,” she says. “It does sound naive now to say that but once I got the idea in my head I went from there.”
Fresh out of medical school in Aberdeen in 1981, Irvine went to Nicaragua for two years to work as a doctor during a period when the government was expanding health and social services. She still practises the Spanish she learnt there, with the Spanish-speaking patients in her GP surgery.
“It was an amazing experience because it was a country that was trying to bring in a health service for the first time ever. I was helping in a country that at that time needed doctors. It was wonderful.”
On returning to the UK in 1985, Irvine trained as a GP because of the appeal of “being part of the community, feeling that connection with people.”
Certainly, her belief in community and its cumulative power has been a common theme throughout her career – whether in medicine or in politics.
“The NHS is a huge community of people working together,” she says. “Not perfect – never perfect – but working. It doesn’t need to be destroyed. I’m not being hyperbolic, we really do believe that.”