If Heathrow has anything to declare, it should be ‘Welcome to Britain’

I’ve been infuriated for years by the absence of any distinctively British or London welcome at the country’s premier airport

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The Independent Online

Walking to my departure gate at Heathrow’s Terminal 1 last week, I almost thought I was seeing things, which was entirely possible, as it was 5am.

Above my route was a gigantic poster saying “Goodbye, hope to see you again”, with cheery pictures of a beefeater and a Chelsea pensioner. Aha, I thought, Heathrow is finally figuring out national branding; I also bet with myself that there wouldn’t be anything similar on my return. But there was: an equally gigantic set of posters, saying “Welcome”, with beaming beefeaters and policewomen.

I’ve been infuriated for years by the absence of any distinctively British or London welcome at the country’s premier airport. The first indication that you were even back on terra firma tended to be adverts for foreign banks and foreign travel; frankly, you could have landed anywhere. Casting London as a global metropolis is one thing, giving visitors no sense of place, or pride, is quite another.

An international airport is the first face of a country that many travellers encounter,  a showcase for the nation. This is why the baggage chaos when Terminal 5 opened in 2008 was so damaging. Airport shopping should not be sterile and international; it should project an identity and offer something you might want to take home.

Which brings me to my destination. It’s years since I went through Vienna airport. It was provincial and cramped. It’s recently been refurbished and extended – and what an impressive job they have done. From the vast Klimt “Kiss” across a whole corridor wall, to the score of The Merry Widow on another, to the Strauss playing discreetly in the background, to the stores boasting Austrian delicacies… Someone really understood that a modern airport is a national opportunity. It’s a lesson smaller countries have taken to heart. We bigger, more complacent, countries need to learn it, too.

How much for an NHS upgrade?

One aspect of the NHS I’ve never understood is its all-or-nothingness. A while back, a cancer patient who raised money to buy a drug that the NHS would not fund was told she would have to pay for all her treatment privately; she could not expect to be treated on the NHS alongside patients with no access to those drugs. The ruling brought to light inconsistencies all over the NHS and was, I believe, eventually overturned.

There’s no such elasticity with accommodation; no option, for instance, to pay for a measure of privacy – a basic, motel-style room, say – without having to stump up the huge cost of private treatment, too. You upgrade your room on the Continent, either directly or through different insurance packages. Why not here?

At last, there are hints that our quasi-communist approach to NHS wards may change. A survey for the King’s Fund medical think-tank showed a consensus in favour of allowing some form of top-up for better accommodation as a way for the NHS to raise money. Not just to raise money, I submit, but a way of making patients a bit happier. It’s no good in this day and age saying that if all patients can’t have a better room, no patient can have one, unless they’re expensively insured. Don’t care homes adjust their fees according to room type?

A reduction in hospital beds in recent years means that whole wards and, in some cases, whole floors of almost new hospitals are empty. Get Travelodge or someone in to convert them, earn some money and give more patients the chance of a decent night’s sleep.