NEARLY 1,000 campaigners took to the streets to protest against plans to downgrade Southend Hospital’s A&E department.

The march from Pier Hill to the end of the High Street was organised by the Save Southend A&E campaign group. The rally had been six weeks in the making.

Mike Fieldhouse, secretary of the group, which was set up to fight against proposals from the NHS England’s Mid and Southend Essex Success Regime proposals, said: “We only started planning the march about six weeks ago so we had no idea what would happen. I was hoping a few hundred people would turn up, but when I saw how many there were it was unbelievable. It must have been anywhere from 600 to 1,000.

“We had families, children, mums and dads, grandparents. We had people in wheelchairs, people using walking sticks. This affects everyone.

“This is not political, we want it to be a cross-party campaign. It’s too huge to have parties fighting against each other.”

Under the success regime plans, Basildon will become the main emergency hospital for the area. Southend and Broomfield, in Chelmsford, will be downgraded to take less serious emergencies.

Mr Fieldhouse, who is the Labour Party spokesman for Prittlewell ward, added: “Doctors and nurses don’t want to work in a walk-in centre, that’s not what they trained for.

“We are told Basildon Hospital is going to be a major trauma centre, but that’s not the case. It would need to have neurosurgeons, like Addenbrooke’s and the Royal London. Basildon will just be a huge A&E department.”

Student Lara Roberts, 19, from Westcliff, joined the march. She said: “I wasn’t sure what the turnout would be, but so many people showed up, and this shows just how much discontent there is over the plans.

“We don’t want to see our A&E facilities here downgraded, because if they are, then people will suffer.

“The population here is growing, not shrinking.

“I’m only young but my grandad is extremely worried about this. He’s paid his taxes and national insurance all of his life.”

Campaigners fear lives will be put at risk because the time it will take to transport patients along the often gridlocked A127 and A13.

Sally Roberts, 28, from Benfleet, said: “It won’t really affect me personally because I live between Basildon and Southend.

“But there are thousands of people it will affect.

“Getting from Southend to Basildon can sometimes take over an hour because of the traffic.

“If you’re in an ambulance on blue lights, that’s the last thing you want.”