True Gripes: The unbearable tedium of waiting: 'They are not the only busy people

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I remember, oh, 20 years ago now, an appointment at the Eastman Dental Hospital. My son, then aged eight or nine, had to have a number of teeth extracted before his jaw was reshaped to make a better bite or smile or something. 'Bring him in at 9 o'clock sharp. And don't give him anything to eat beforehand. they said.

At 8.40am a dry-mouthed small boy and I presented ourselves and were directed to an ominously crowded waiting room. It was aptly named.

We waited and we waited, and my son grew paler and more jittery as each quarter-hour ticked by. Eventually, after almost two hours, I stormed past a flurry of defensive nurses and marched into the consultant's room.

'I too am a busy person, I said. 'I too have a life governed by appointments. But I have the courtesy to make and keep mine punctually, and if I didn't, I would soon be out of a job. What makes you and your department so inefficient that my son's terror is prolonged for two hours? After much more righteous maternal anger I was hustled out with the assurance that we would be seen next. We were - and furthermore, never kept waiting again.

That was 20 years ago: but it still happens.

Last week, for example, I turned up at 9.20 (needing time to calm my nerves and ask a few questions about procedure) for a 10.30 hearing in the Small Claims Court, only to find that everyone had been given the same time, and the court actually sat at 10. We were taken in some random order whose rationale I could not discern. My case came up at 11.30: only an hour's wait, had I been punctual rather than early.

Why can't cases be staggered throughout the day? If some litigants don't turn up, I'm sure experience has made court officials pretty good at estimating how much allowance to make for this. And if the judge does have 10 minutes to spare in the middle of the day this must be welcome, after the pressure of angry people and their complicated grievances?

Another example. For the past 15 years I have attended a clinic at a large London NHS hospital several times a year. Here, instead of all being given appointments for the same time, patients are dispersed through the morning.

In practice it makes little difference, since the system works by patients being seen in order of arival. I prefer not to cross London by Tube at the height of the rush hour, so I wait for at least 90 minutes like everyone else.

Yes, one can always make a fuss and thereby jump in ahead of the patient Grizeldas who sit quietly, silenced by nerves or indifference or fear of getting on the wrong side of the great Them: be they judges or doctors or dentists.

It is an insult to the waiting public to assume that they have nothing better to do than sit uncomfortably until summoned. It cannot be beyond the wit of experts to organise a morning of appointments that will reduce waiting times to around 20 minutes.

It would show consideration and respect and greatly reduce the number of those who, out of terror or plain disillusionment, simply fail to show up.

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