No-one escapes the consequences of the government's response to the COVID pandemic, but the Paine Family has escaped unscathed from the virus itself – so far. My elderly parents were vulnerable because of their age and health but have managed to steer clear of those hubs of infection - care homes and hospitals. Until this week.
I am currently staying with my frail, elderly mother while my frail, elderly father is in hospital. He collapsed when he attempted to get up on Sunday morning. He was retrieved from the floor and returned to his bed by kindly neighbours. He was eventually hospitalised on Sunday evening after a grandson had spent hours on the phone to medically-unqualified, algorithm-driven NHS gatekeepers in call-centres.
I say hospitalised but gurney-ised would be more accurate. He was not diagnosed until Monday morning when he was finally taken off his trolley, admitted to a ward and given antibiotics. Too late, it seems because he had developed sepsis (one of the most common agents of death in emergency care). Crowds of medics materialised and his life seems to have been saved from the threat their previous absence had quite possibly caused.
This sob story has, I promise, a point. The experience has exposed us directly to the interesting way in which the government health service in Britain has responded to the pandemic. My mother, my sisters and I faced a situation in which Dad seemed likely to be lost to us, but we were forbidden to visit him or be at hand. In normal times, we would have had opportunities to speak to his consultant. Instead we have a number to call. Sometimes a recorded message tells us all staff are busy. Sometimes an anonymous voice summons a staff nurse to give us an update. Sometimes she comes. Sometimes another anonymous voice tells us she's too busy.
After forty-eight hours of that, I asked if it was possible to speak to the consultant. This seemed to be considered a radical request. However I was given a name and told to call the main switchboard and ask for his secretary. I did so and left a message on her answering machine. I called again the next morning and left another. I then got a call saying my message has been passed on and "he knows you want to speak to him". I am still waiting. Despite her careful choice of words, I take some hope from the fact that his secretary did not seem to think it lese-majesté on my behalf to ask.
It's quite shocking how normal this all now seems to NHS staff. They seem actively to prefer not having to deal with the families of patients. Assuming (as I think is reasonable given the staff nurse's response to my request) that most families don't ask to speak to consultants, they at least must have a more relaxed life than usual. I suppose it's up for debate whether the time staff nurses spend on the phone to families is more or less than the time they used to spend dealing with them in person.
I find it hard to imagine a socialised service untrammelled by market mechanisms will ever return to its old standard now the public has meekly accepted this kind of service. One of my sisters said that "someone will have to give them a rocket" but who, pray, is likely to do that? The Labour Party is the political wing of the public sector unions and the "Conservative Party" is now – at best – New Labour reborn.