Hostile allegations of back-room dealing, broken campaign promises and overly powerful health care bureaucrats drew demonstrators out in force this week. Their mission: to preserve Norway’s largest hospital, Ullevål sykehus, and local democracy itself.
It was a large, impressive and highly unusual group of demonstrators who gathered first in front of Oslo City Hall Tuesday evening and then marched slowly to the Parliament a few blocks away. They represented the professional associations for doctors and nurses in Oslo, Norway’s largest trade union federations, grass-roots organizations trying to save both Ullevål and Aker hospitals, several health care agencies and, not least, top politicians from every party represented on the Oslo City Council.
It amounted to an extraordinary multi-partisan protest that united city politicians usually at odds with one another, and then pitted them against their own party fellows at the state level. The local politicians in Oslo are all furious over how Norway’s new Labour-Center government is preparing to override the will of the people in the nation’s capital.
At issue is the state’s threat to force the shutdown of what’s formally called Oslo University Hospital Ullevål, and build a new high-rise hospital adjacent to the national hospital (Rikshospitalet) in Oslo’s Gaustad area. There also are plans to revive Oslo’s old Aker Hospital farther to the east and turn it into the main hospital serving Oslo’s residents.
Opponents claim the site chosen at Gaustad for a new hospital is much too small and lacks room to expand. The pandemic has also highlighted the advantages of a hospital complex like Ullevål, where mostly low-rise buildings are spread out over a large area. A new high-rise hospital could become a “tower of infection,” critics claim.
Their main argument, however, is that Ullevål’s highly specialized medical professionals would be split up between hospitals at Gaustad and Aker, not least Ullevål’s award-winning emergency care and trauma unit. Doctors, nurses and other health care workers at Ullevål firmly oppose a shutdown and break-up of their professional milieu.
The state owns and operates Norwegian hospitals, though, and the government Health Ministry has been siding with the regional state health bureaucrats who’ve been wanting to phase out Ullevål for years and, ultimately, sell its prime real estate in central Oslo to property developers. They think the state could thus save money and provide hospital services in new, modern facilities at other locations in the capital.
The state’s plan, however, defies the overwhelming majority in Oslo who want to preserve Ullevål and rather build new facilities at its existing site that sprawls over a large and leafy area in the heart of the city. Local support for the historic hospital, renowned for its emergency care and preparedness teams, is strong, also outside the capital. Injured and critically ill Norwegians are regularly rushed by helicopter to Ullevål from all over the country: “The hospitals in Oslo aren’t just for the city’s population, they’re important for the whole country,” wrote the leader of a local Labour Party chapter in Oslo in a commentary published in newspaper Dagsavisen last week.
The Labour-led national government, however, has backed away from its earlier claims of respect for local democracy by ignoring what a majority in Oslo wants. Most startling is how Labour’s government coalition partner, the Center Party, has broken its campaign promise last year to save Ullevål. Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, now Norway’s finance minister, has given up the fight for Ullevål and now ignores charges that he’s betrayed his voters and his party’s principles.
That raises questions, according to Professor Emeritus Rune Slagstad, about “what happened in conversations between party leaders Vedum and (Labour’s Jonas Gahr) Støre” when they negotiated their new government’s platform. All defense of Ullevål not only vanished in the platform, it also contains wording that the government “will support changes in the hospital structure in Oslo, in accordance with (bureaucratically) approved plans.” Slagstad claims those plans had become a matter of prestige for the highly paid administrators at Helse Sør-Øst, the regional state agency responsible for hospitals in southeastern Norway. In the end, the Labour-Center government seems to be yielding to their demands and not those of the residents of Oslo and their elected representatives.
Slagstad, writing in a commentary published in newspaper Aftenposten earlier this week, even suspects there’s a link between Vedum’s reversal on the Ullevål issue and changes in previously announced plans (also administered by Helse Sør-Øst) for a new hospital in his home region not far from Hamar. A new hospital that would serve the entire region around Lake Mjøsa was approved for construction in Moelv, between Hamar, Gjøvik and Lillehammer. Now there’s a stated need in the new government platform to examine an alternative to the Moelv site, closer to Hamar and Stange, Vedum’s home turf.
“Some people clearly had gotten together and talked,” Slagstad wrote. Vedum hasn’t explained his about-face on Ullevål, nor is it clear why Prime Minister Støre, who hails from Oslo, is also now willing to push through a new hospital project few if any of his voters want, at Ullevål’s expense.
Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen of the Socialist Left Party (SV), on which Labour and Center usually rely for majority support in Parliament, is furious that the state now seems poised to forcibly shut down Ullevål. Oslo politicians at the very least had been relying on support for the city planning department that must approve all new building projects in the capital. It has also objected to the plans for the new hospital on the grounds the land area isn’t large enough to support such height and density.
Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol of Labour set off Borgen’s and others’ fury late last month when she said the government would consider using its power to override the local authorities, and order the shutdown of Ullevål and construction of a new hospital.
“As leader of the City Council and mayor in Oslo I’m in an uproar,” Borgen told newspaper Aftenposten before leading Tuesday’s protest march. “The government is showing a lack of respect for the local elected officials and local democracy.” She pointed to how a majority on the City Council determined that state regulation of local planning and zoning was not acceptable and that the government must listen to the people. Only some members of the Conservative Party on the Oslo City Council are willing to go along with a shutdown of Ullevål, as are Conservative MPs. That can force the Labour-Center government to rely on support for the hospital projects in Oslo from the Conservatives, usually their arch rivals.
Tuesday’s demonstration revealed other highly unusual political alliances. It’s not often you see members of the right-wing Progress Party agreeing with the Socialist Left Party, or Progress veteran Carl I Hagen right behind Borgen in the torchlit protest march to Parliament. The march also brought together other politicians from the left to the right, including Conservatives veteran Michael Tetzschner. He also marched along with Progress, the Socialist Left and Reds parties: “I don’t agree with all the banners here,” he told Aftenposten, but he objects to all forms of the state interfering with or overriding local government. He also dislikes situations where state bureaucrats at the health care agencies in practice decide how billions of kroner are spent, without having political responsibility for such decisions.
“We just have to hope they (the Labour-Center government) comes to its senses,” Borgen told Aftenposten, noting how the government’s own platform also states that “the time for overriding local authority is over,” and that Vedum himself had stressed during the campaign how important it was to save Ullevål Hospital.
“When you set that aside after coming into power, it doesn’t just show a lack of respect for elected officials, but also for the the voters who’ve been promised something else,” Borgen said. She wants the government to listen to all the local politicians and medical professionals who are warning against Ullevål’s shutdown, and back off.
Those still trying to save Ullevål aren’t giving up. The planning agency’s evaluation is due later this spring. It will then be put out to hearing before the agency sends its conclusion to the City Council and city government, led by another top Labour politician at odds with his own state government, Raymond Johansen. Then it’s up to Health Minister Kjerkol and the government to decide whether to go through with their threat of overriding that decision and calling in the wrecking crews.