Mary Dejevsky: Let's light a bonfire of official vanities

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The Independent Online

Not so long ago, I wanted to comment on the care of a relative at a particular hospital. More recently, I had something to say about a GP service. So as not to implicate the patients concerned – and perhaps prompt reprisals (oh yes they do) – I wanted to write anonymously, while naming the clinics, but not the individuals concerned. Now you may say that I was just being an irresponsible busybody. I would say I wanted to highlight shortcomings and suggest entirely feasible improvements. Either way, it might be reasonable to expect that the NHS might have a website that facilitated just this. You would be wrong.

Like many public bodies, they want to communicate with you – offering all sorts of complicated advice, all sorts of organisational charts, and all sorts of internal excellence ratings. If you want to communicate with them, however, it's another matter. I could find no channel for the sort of specific comments I wanted to make, which might come under a general heading of "feedback". Not one. Nor was there any joy from a website run by The Patients Association, which you might think was there for that very purpose – though it is apparently going to be improved.

Joy of joy, it turns out that it's not just me, busybody or not, that finds the NHS website nigh on useless. The Department of Health conducted a review of its "digital communications" which reached the same conclusion. The NHS, it found, had more than 4,000 websites, a quarter of which were no longer accessible. Of the remainder, more than half provided no email address, while the two biggest – NHS Direct and NHS Choices – seemed to be in competition. The central recommendation is that the NHS should have one single website that is easily navigable, patient-friendly and open to public feedback.

Whether this happens, of course, is another matter. But I'm becoming rather a fan of ministers who seem to grasp that even "digital" communication should be a two-way process and that quality can be in indirect proportion to quantity. They are talking of shutting down many of the departmental websites that have proliferated in recent years. The Government has also slashed its own advertising budget and instructed local authorities not to employ PR agencies. Less time, money and attention lavished on the means, and more on the message, has to be a good thing.

The same Department of Health study found that almost 60 per cent of GPs' websites had problems. How right. My husband received a letter about the repeat prescription service going on-line only. He was supposed to register (with complicated ID and pin, of course). When he actually needed his prescription, having done all this, the system wouldn't work at all, so it was back to the phone. How many state-of-the-art drugs would that have paid for?

The bikes are great, Boris, now fix the roads

I'm tempted, really tempted. There's a rack of "Boris bikes" just around the corner from our flat, sited with pointed irony perhaps, outside the main entrance to the Department for Transport. And there's another rack right outside our office. So no excuses, really. But two things deter. The first is becoming a living, cycling advert for a certain bank. The other is, frankly, cowardice.

All right, so thousands pedal around the capital without mishap. But last year 12 cyclists were killed and more than 500 hurt, and the figures don't seem to be falling. What's more, women are more accident-prone than men; perversely, the chaps' greater assertiveness keeps them safer. But it's the contest for road space that really scares me.

London has done a passable job in devising cycle routes that go through the parks or roads less travelled. But I've seen many a cycle lane that is squashed up against parked cars and others where you are jammed between a car lane and a bus lane with precious little leeway for anyone. If you are unfortunate enough to coincide with a juggernaut on one side and a double-decker bus on the other, well, I would rather wheel my steed along the pavement. The difficulty is that, for all the glories of cycling through Hyde Park and the like, you generally can't get from A to B without mixing it somewhere with the buses and HGVs.

It's a pity, with all the pavement-widening in progress, that there has been no effort to create proper cycle lanes, as in northern Europe, and an even greater pity that huge lorries are still permitted in central London. In Paris and many other foreign cities, goods have to be transferred to smaller vehicles or delivered out of working hours. Only here have the powers-that-be "bought" the argument that business would seize up. No it wouldn't; it's the lorries parked at all hours in bus and cycle lanes that routinely paralyse traffic flow. Thanks for the shiny blue bikes, Boris, but how about giving us proper space to ride them?

When disaster strikes, all aid is good

Britain's first government aid for flood-stricken Pakistan arrived at the weekend. I know these things take time to put together, but it still seemed quite a while after the first news of the disaster to be delivering 500 tents. Worse, though, was the suspicion with which contributions from some Muslim groups were greeted here.

A BBC report cast aspersions on one charity, which it admitted was working swiftly and efficiently, for perhaps, at several removes, being linked to al-Qa'ida. I don't know about you, but if I were homeless and half my family had been swept away, I wouldn't be too fussy about where help came from. Nor does there have to be an ulterior motive; charity is an obligation in many religions. The priority is to reach the stricken region, set up an effective distribution system and do some good. You can't cling to your tree-branch forever, waiting for some nice, no-strings-attached British tents