Tuesday 7 July 2009

Daring to be rude about the NHS

One of the most striking changes in this country during my lifetime has been the almost complete death of respect. Parents, teachers, clergy, police, politicians, royalty; all the traditional authority figures are now routinely abused.

So far as I can see, there are only two notable exceptions to the current British “disrespect” rule: the Muslim religion and the NHS. I think we all understand why few dare to be rude about the former; but why are politicians of all parties falling over themselves to praise the NHS and assure us that it will be exempt from the swingeing cutbacks which are inevitably heading our way, as a result of the decision to spend so much of our money saving bankers from themselves?

I am a child of the NHS, though my only significant direct exposure to it was having my tonsils removed in the old Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in Rye Hill when I was six. An experience so horrific that I was still having nightmares about it four decades later.

It then superintended the decline and deaths of my parents, with mixed results. The things that stick in the mind are my father being stuck in a private room in a spanking new hospital where no-one ever responded to his bell; to the extent that my mother once found him slumped onto a newspaper for so long that a perfect mirror image of the front page had transferred itself to his face.

Or there was the time I went to pick him up after a routine operation to be told that he was not allowed to walk to the car (though that was precisely how he would be getting around as soon as he reached home); no porter would push him in a wheelchair during their sacred dinner hour; and if I dared to push him myself the whole hospital would be closed by a strike.

Fast-forward 20-odd years to 2009, and how have things changed? Our hopes were scarcely raised when, shortly before our baby was due to be born, we found our chosen hospital covered in signs apologising for the restrictions imposed on visitors while attempts were made to control an outbreak of the norovirus.

Despite the site being festooned in banners boasting about a 45% increase in consultant numbers since it became an NHS foundation trust in 2004, my wife only ever saw one during a long series of what were supposed to be consultant appointments prior to the birth, and I never met one at all.

As for as the experience of childbirth itself, and the care of our son during a worrying few days of hypoglycaemia, we were hugely appreciative of the work of some brilliant, kind and dedicated professionals. However, this was counterbalanced by the experience of dirty and horrifically overheated wards, inedible food, surly support staff and a slow-grinding bureaucracy so monumentally frustrating that I was seriously fearing for my wife’s sanity by the time I had arranged her discharge. By which stage, we were able to take our son home with the added bonus of a hospital-acquired infection.

We agreed as we drove out of the hospital grounds that we would not be having any more children unless we could afford to do the whole thing privately, of which there is little sign; pregnancy being one of those conditions which private medical insurance curiously fails to cover.

In short, I remain unconvinced that the countless billions lavished on the NHS since 1997 have been wisely spent, or that they have made it anything like “the envy of the world” it was always cracked up to be. I for one would be prepared to respect the first politician who dared to initiate a genuinely open public debate about why this is, and what can be done about it.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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