Thomas Sutcliffe: Tongue-tied medic has a lot to learn

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The Independent Online

The phrase "political correctness" isn't invariably an indicator of bone-headed prejudice - though it's often best to work on that assumption until evidence to the contrary arrives. But it's hard to imagine what form the contradictory evidence could take in the case of Dr Michael Dixon's apparently impatient reaction to a request from Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust that doctors should give up wearing ties - because of the possibility that they might spread MRSA.

This disease isn't, one should remember, a figment of some sociologist's overheated sense of social injustice. It hasn't been invented by some lobby group to further its political ends, or dreamt up by a hygiene business hoping to open a new market. It is a dangerous organism which upends the most basic expectation of healthcare, which is that a hospital should cure you, not kill you. The arrival of a new, more aggressive form in British hospitals has just been confirmed by the Health Protection Agency.

As chairman of the NHS Alliance, the representational organisation for primary care and Primary Care Trusts, you might have thought that Dr Michael Dixon would take this very seriously indeed. As the NHS Alliance website points out, they are supposed to be about spreading "best practice". He may also be aware of research by a team from the New York Hospital in Queens which found, more than three years ago, that nearly half the ties worn by their medical workers harboured disease-causing bacteria, nearly eight times the infection level when compared with security staff at the hospital. It's hardly a counterintuitive finding. Flapping, flailing, repeatedly tugged and tucked and rarely, if ever, cleaned, a tie might have been designed by a bacteria as a congenial form of public transport.

But apparently Dr Dixon thinks the proposed measure harbours dangers of its own. "This is political correctness rather than science," he's reported to have said in response to the idea. "Patients need to be able to respect and trust their doctors, and going around without ties might damage that relationship".

I don't know when Dr Dixon was asked about this matter or how much time he had to think about his answer. But in its reflexive pomposity and stupefyingly muddled logic, the one he gave is consistent with being ripped from sleep at four in the morning and ordered to reply before the journalist in question could count to 10.

Five seconds more thought and it might have occurred to him that quite a few distinguished female colleagues could give him advice a on tie-free trust (though I suppose he might just give a meaningful harrumph at this point). Another five seconds on top of that and he might have realised that some patients don't like to be referred to as if they're benighted peasants who can be hypnotised into biddability by a bit of dangling silk.

But it seems he didn't think about what he was going to say and so - instead of furthering the idea that everyone is required to do their bit, however small, to help stamp out MRSA infections - he managed to suggest it was the sort of worked-up panic that doesn't even justify changing your neckwear. And if a senior doctor behaves like this, what chance is there of getting those tie-struck morons - the general public - to take the most basic hygiene precautions when visiting hospitals? When it comes to damaging trust in doctors, Dr Dixon should look a good deal closer to home.

Stealing all our excuses

The Government has finally caught up with the comedian Marcus Brigstocke, who a while ago neatly spiked a media panic about Eastern European migrant workers. They weren't over here taking our jobs, he said tartly. They were over here doing our jobs.

John Hutton's version ("If workers from Poland can take advantage of these vacancies in our major cities, why can't our own people do so as well?") wasn't quite as funny - but the basic import was the same. If you can't find a job, it may just be that you're not seeking hard enough.

It seems as if the traditional lament of the xenophobic will have to be adjusted to match changing circumstances: "Bleedin' East Europeans ... they come over here ... taking all our excuses."

* Asked about his charity Sentebale, which will benefit from the Diana tribute concert next year, Prince Harry explained that he'd chosen to focus on Lesotho "because of the fact that it wasn't even on the map".

I presume he meant his map - Sandhurst in near foreground, followed by English Channel, followed by Klosters. Certainly South Africans had no trouble at all in finding it when I lived there in the early Seventies - since it was the nearest available source of back copies of Playboy, vast stacks of which were piled in the grocery just across the border to satisfy the curiosity of white day-trippers.

At the time, the country's most distinctive architectural feature was a craft shop shaped like a giant Basotho hat - but I imagine there'll be no holding it back now that the Windsors have alerted the wider world to its existence.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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