The photo of an NHS in crisis that Boris Johnson refused to look at… but millions of voters now will

Image of sick young boy sleeping on clinic floor could become election’s pivotal moment, health correspondent Shaun Lintern writes

Monday 09 December 2019 16:43 GMT
The prime minister grabbed a journalist’s phone and put it in his pocket when he was confronted with the image of four-year-old Jack Williment
The prime minister grabbed a journalist’s phone and put it in his pocket when he was confronted with the image of four-year-old Jack Williment

Lying prostrate on the floor with tubes to an oxygen mask partially obscuring his Spider-Man pyjamas, four-year-old Jack Williment raises one arm to shield his eyes from the harsh fluorescent lights.

He was seriously ill at the time, with suspected pneumonia. He just wanted to sleep. He should have been able to rest in a hospital bed, but services were so stretched at the Leeds hospital treating him that they could only offer him the hard floor of a clinic room, a coat and thin blanket his only comfort.

While much has been said and written about the desperate plight of an under-resourced NHS ahead of the general election, it is an image so powerful that there exists a chance it could become a pivotal moment in the days before Thursday’s vote.

So powerful, in fact, that Boris Johnson refused to look at it when asked to by a reporter while on the campaign trail this morning.

The prime minister could not bring himself to look at the picture; we believe everyone should.

Boris Johnson grabbed journalist's phone and put it in his pocket

Jack was rushed to hospital in an ambulance and given a bed in the paediatric emergency department, but later staff at the hospital had to move him out of the bed because of an emergency case – an episode in clinical juggling taking place every day in every hospital across the country.

Overall, Jack and his mother Sarah Williment endured an eight-hour wait in Leeds General Infirmary’s accident and emergency department. Ms Williment, a primary school teacher, snapped the photograph of her desperately ill son in what was a simple act that could now define the final days of the campaign.

The NHS has been argued over for weeks. With promises of billions spent here, thousands of new staff there, and endless debates over whether or not the NHS is at risk from US companies.

Important though some of this is, it will have been of no consolation to Jack or his parents, as he was forced to rest on the floor of an NHS clinic room.

It bears comparison with the “War of Jennifer’s ear”, the moniker given to a 1992 row between Labour and the Conservatives over waiting times to treat a five-year-old girl. Although Labour went on to lose that election, the concerted subsequent uproar surrounding NHS delays in the 1990s ultimately led the Blair government to introduce waiting time guarantees.


Doctors and nurses struggle every day to ensure patients receive adequate care, but are increasingly doing so against unsustainable demand with hospitals reporting record A&E attendances.

After decades of bed closures and nine years of austerity, the NHS just simply cannot deliver for everyone all of the time. Across the country other young children will be forced to sleep in their parent’s arms or on a chair or even, like Jack, on the floor.

According to the latest data from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, more than 38,000 patients waited over 12 hours in 50 hospital emergency departments since the beginning of October. Nationally the NHS has not achieved the four-hour waiting time target in A&E since July 2015.

Millions of patients are waiting for operations, tens of thousands are waiting for beds in emergency departments. Cancer patients are waiting longer than they should for vital scans.

But this has been the case for several years, alongside sporadic widespread outcry around the state of the NHS.

The next few days will establish whether the image of Jack taking refuge on the floor – and the prime minister’s inexplicable response – will change that and, in turn, the course of events on Thursday.

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