Thursday, 17 January 2013

An apparent disappearance reveals a salutary truth about public services

Apparent disappearance is a lovely expression, isn’t it? It embodies a paradox and, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, I have a pretty taste for paradox. 

Still, apparent disappearance wasn’t so funny the other night when it was my mother who had apparently disappeared. There are those, after all, who’d say that to lose even one parent looks like carelessness. You’ll understand that it was particularly worrying since she’d had a fall the previous day and, as I think I can reveal without being unduly indiscreet, my mother isn’t a spring chicken. What made things worse was that I live nowhere near her and nor does my brother.

She hadn’t really disappeared, of course. In fact, she’d made every effort to get in touch and tell us where she was, but she’d been given a ‘dodgy phone’ and the message hadn’t got through.

So what does one do in those circumstances?

Well, I rang the police. And that’s the point at which my experience of the evening suddenly took a huge turn for the better.

The young policeman was polite and friendly, and quickly took down my mother’s details and my own. It turned out that a colleague of his had also got involved in the case, because before he’d even finished checking information with me, she was able to tell him that my mother had indeed been taken to hospital.

He gave me the hospital’s phone numbers; reception transferred me rapidly to the emergency admissions unit and, after no more rings than one might expect in a busy area, a member of staff answered and told me that they were expecting my mother shortly, but that for the moment she was still in the Emergency Department completing a series of scans and other tests.

Half an hour later I rang again and spoke to her. She was clearly not at all disheartened and the tests had shown up nothing worrying – she had been in pain but it seemed it was only a matter of some severe bruising. And her account of the evening was similar to mine: ‘the paramedics and the staff here have been so helpful, so friendly, so kind.’

In other words, both she and I had received exactly the kind of service we could hope for. And at no point had she been asked to produce a credit card: the much-maligned NHS had treated her superbly and efficiently and, true to its fundamental principles, at no charge.

I was, of course, delighted to have tracked down my mother and found her in no worse health than might have been expected, and indeed in far less bad condition than we might have feared. Nonetheless, I’m still troubled. Now it’s over the fact that so many people, large numbers of whom really should know better, aren’t apparently as outraged as I am at the way the British government is interfering the hell out of the public services.

Of course there are many examples of appalling behaviour by policeman, even of downright corruption. Of course there are many examples of lamentable performance by hospitals, with patients treated badly or even cruelly, to the point that some have died unnecessarily. But these events are shocking precisely because they’re rare. Overall, the police and the NHS perform superbly, as I found by personal experience when tracking down my mother.

And whats all this stuff about efficiency savings? I couldn’t have asked for more efficient service. If only David Cameron and his colleagues could say the same about their own work, as they constantly paint themselves into corners and have to reverse their policy decisions.

It was a shame that I had my highly encouraging experience of the police and the NHS on the same day I learned about government plans to make a massive reduction in the starting pay of policemen and women. Meanwhile, a series of half-baked reforms are still reducing pay in the NHS, demoralising the staff and making changes which have no sense except in so far as they let  in ministers’ friends from the private sector to take over services.

The NHS, the police: much more impressive than government
So why not get off their backs, Cameron?

Just how long are we going to put up with this undermining of services that we need so much and which are being provided so well?

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