After a week of spin and squabble many are understandably confused by the story of 94-year-old Rose Addis and the hospital accused of neglecting her. Here we look at what really went on at London's Whittington Hospital and how an elderly patient became the victim of a bitter political slanging match over the state of the National Health Service

Abandoned in casualty. A woman of 94 left "unwashed and caked in blood" for almost three days. No beds. The latest in a "series of blunders" at a north London hospital. It was a solid scoop to make the lead story in London's Evening Standard, horrendous for the old lady and her family, and deeply embarrassing for the Whittington Hospital. But was this tale, the meat-and-drink of local newspaper journalism, the stuff of wall-to-wall news coverage lasting a week and a worthy stimulus for top-level political debate?

Perhaps not. But the "Battle of Rose's Head", like causes célèbres of the past, had little to do with either the truth of what went on in the 72 hours she spent in a mixed-sex room in Accident and Emergency between 13 and 15 January, her refusal to be undressed by nurses or the then inevitable failure of staff to change her clothes or clean her up fully. There is no dispute that the treatment she received for a bloody head-wound was correct. And the hospital insists it was for appropriate care rather than because of bed shortages that she was kept in the A&E department. Those are the facts.

But the case became subsumed in a wider war. Rose Addis became a symbol of the "failing NHS" – the Conservative Party's latest campaign to highlight, through personal cases where possible, problems in health care and other public services. Party strategists say the Tories intend to "keep banging on about it until the message gets through", conscious that they are using the same tactics deployed by Labour in opposition.

The Conservatives have identified hitting the Government on public services – especially Labour's beloved NHS – as crucial to Iain Duncan Smith's survival as party leader and the key to unlocking electoral recovery.

Labour maintains that the Tories' real goal is to "discredit public services so they can privatise them", one minister said. But Blair's government is not without its own agenda. By showing that public services are working – as the Prime Minister's glowing tribute to public sector workers on Friday was designed to convey – it is possible that the Government can get away with putting up tax to pay for them. With everything to play for in the House of Commons, Rose's head could become the "Jennifer's Ear" of its time.

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, was the first to succumb to bunker mentality when confronted on Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday. He had gone on the programme to talk about a £60m funding package for health in the South-east England. He ended up talking about Mrs Addis.

Mr Milburn dismissed as "fiction" the account of her hospital stay given to the Evening Standard the day before by her daughter, Zena Gold. He based his remarks on information received by the Department of Health from the hospital's chief executive, Trevor Campbell Davis. The department admits they were "copied in" to all correspondence from the hospital on the case on Wednesday morning. But even as Mr Milburn spoke, Mrs Gold's version of events was being backed up by Sidney Hockley, 88, another dissatisfied patient. Mr Milburn's advisers are now careful about using the word "fiction", insisting its meaning was "pickled to suggest we were saying the family was lying".

Although the hospital has apologised to the family, the Department of Health is adamant that reporting on the case was "disgraceful" and "one-sided". Sources even claim that the Evening Standard suppressed publication of an article based on a reporter's interviews with staff at the Whittington Hospital on Tuesday. By then, though, they had a better story.

On Monday the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, had been alerted to press coverage of the case. The next morning he was in Conservative Central Office, considering options for his weekly clash with Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions. By then, Mrs Gold – who lives in South Woodford, in Mr Duncan Smith's constituency – had contacted the constituency office for a second time. She agreed to write with more details, which were received by Mr Duncan Smith on Wednesday morning. An appointment was made for the family to see Mr Duncan Smith in Chingford on Friday, which was later cancelled amid fears that it would descend into a "media circus". Mr Duncan Smith spoke to Mrs Gold on Wednesday morning. He was said to be "indignant to say the least" at what he heard.

That indignation informed his decision to take Mrs Addis's story to the House of Commons. Mrs Gold had, he said, claimed a dog would be treated better, and demanded an apology from the Government. But the Prime Minister, armed with the letter from the Whittington, was ready for him. The compassionate bedside manner Blair is famous for was nowhere to be seen. It was hard to reconcile his brusque rebuttal with the plight of an old lady.

The Prime Minister had been boxed into a corner. The next day's coverage was expected to be damaging. The Prime Minister's official spokesman was briefing lobby journalists after PMQs to try and minimise the hit. It was not enough. Downing Street – on an "it didn't come from us" basis – told the papers that Mrs Addis was "confused", sparking a new row over patient confidentiality. In fairness, the hospital had a legal right to defend itself, and neither the Government nor the Opposition released any information not already in the public domain. But while the Tories had not contacted the hospital to hear its side of things, the Government had yet to speak to the family. Spin doctors' efforts to dampen the furore had been unsuccessful. Step forward Professor James Malone-Lee, a consultant and Labour supporter. In an interview with BBC2's Newsnight on Wednesday he allowed the inference that Mrs Addis had refused to have her clothes changed because the nurses were black. That story ran in late editions of The Independent and The Guardian.

The Tories went ballistic. Their coup looked set to backfire. At a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet on Thursday morning, their health spokesman Liam Fox told colleagues: "She's a 94-year-old woman, not Adolf Hitler." They were saved, though, by an intervention from Jason Gold, Mrs Addis's grandson, who let it be known that his grandmother "adored" her two council careworkers, both from ethnic minorities.

His was not the only accusation of "low politics". The term was used by BBC presenter John Humphrys as the junior minister Hazel Blears pumped out the latest government line that the Tories' only intention was to run down the staff of the NHS. This tactic was repeated by Mr Blair in a major speech on public services on Friday that prompted Mr Duncan Smith to complain that the PM was using health service staff as "human shields".

Mr Duncan Smith, by then, was widely regarded as the winner. The Government desperately wanted the story closed down. Rose Addis had served her purpose. But the "Battle of Rose's Head", like the War of Jennifer's Ear, will not be forgotten. What we must remember, though, is that in such cases nothing is as it seems. As Jennifer's grandfather, Peter Lee-Roberts, said 10 years after the little girl's wait for treatment for an ear complaint was used by the Labour Party against the then Tory government: "It was never her ear. She only had tonsilitis."

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