Listeners welled up when the Labour MP Ann Clwyd described on Radio Four how her beloved husband, Owen Roberts, had caught pneumonia, was treated in a Welsh hospital like a “battery hen”, neglected, left to breathe through an oxygen mask which cut into his face and died in a bed which was too small for him.
The nurses didn’t give a damn, according to the grieving MP. Since the broadcast in December Clwyd has had “hundreds and hundreds” of letters and emails from people sharing their similar or worse stories. Now what the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt calls the “normalisation of cruelty” seems widespread on wards, denounces the entire NHS and wants radical action. And she does so in an avowedly right-wing Sunday newspaper.
I can understand her passions and truly sympathise with her family and others. No medical professional should behave with the callousness she witnessed and experienced, and too many do. We have probably all come across uncaring and scary nurses and doctors. But I say gently, Clwyd’s high emotions are leading her to declare another unwise war and a little caution and restraint needs to be injected into the discourse she is stirring up. I remember her genuine distress about Iraq’s Marsh Arabs and others oppressed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. And her intense, sometimes hyperbolic interventions supporting Blair and the neocon case for going to war on Iraq. That catastrophic conflict killed and maimed countless Iraqis. This campaign of hers, I fear, is again, impelled by much feeling and inadequate reflection and at a time when the NHS, its founding mission and future, are seriously at risk, more gravely than at any point in its history.
To speak of “normalisation of cruelty”, in Mr Hunt’s words, in its service is plainly unfair though very helpful to Tory ideologues. They are hellbent on disabling the institution to justify and facilitate privatisation and profiteering by businesses waiting in the wings, and health professionals too who know they can make personal fortunes if the service is further “liberalised”.
Lib Dem activist Dr Evan Harris has been campaigning against these plans, many of them surreptitiously pushed through across the country. Citizens too have been protesting against closures of A&E departments, labour and paediatric wards and other key facilities. I will be joining a vigil in Ealing this Saturday of people against the closure of our hospital’s A&E unit, a demo which will, as usual, be disdained by the Government. Consultant radiologist Jacky Davis has warned repeatedly that an integrated, accountable NHS is being replaced by a fragmented, “rag bag of competing providers”. Even the most informed of us know little about how fast “reform” is being imposed. Dining with friends on New Year’s Eve, I sat next to Dr Guy Bailey who told me what was happening. Bailey, with Davis and others has formed the National Health Action (NHA) Party which aims to contest seats in the next election to try and save the NHS.
Now, this is not a good week to be defending the NHS. The final Francis Inquiry report is expected to be published and will severely criticise staff and the leadership at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust for poor leadership and a culture of indifference to patient safety which led to the unnecessary deaths of between 400 and 1,200 patients, many of whom were treated far worse than sick and needy animals. What happened at Stafford Hospital is still happening elsewhere. I know because I am part of an Imperial College/ NHS Trust project investigating and committed to improving patient safety across the NHS. These flaws and foul-ups cause untold anguish and dishonour the founding mission of our healthcare provision. But it is at these times of utter disillusionment that we most need to champion the best of the NHS.
A student, a relative, nearly died last year because of dreadful mistakes made by a reputable hospital. One evening while out with friends, her drink was spiked. She went into a coma. Nurses took her blood for tests, but without checking the results sent her home once she had recovered a little. She was still in and out of consciousness. Twelve hours later they looked at the tests, apologised and told her she had the right to sue. She refused to do so: “They cocked up badly, shouldn’t have. It’s my NHS. Why should I take money from them? How many times have I had brill treatment?” Wise words from the mouth of a teen. We both have chronic problems. Good doctors and nurses keep her and me alive. But will we get that in the years to come?
We must heed the judicious words of Peter Walsh, chief executive of the Association for Victims of Medical Accidents: “We now see ‘perfect storm’ conditions for further ‘Staffords’ to happen, with not only pressures on resources but increased demand, fragmentation, low morale and chaos brought by reorganisation”. He links bad practice to low staff numbers, a message the Government will ignore. Clwyd’s emotive crusade and the Francis Report may, sadly and unintentionally, help the Government’s organised disintegration of the NHS. We will only realise what we have lost and how we lost it when it is too late. It may be too late already.