This tale by Richard Morrison was published in the Times today (20th February):
"Because I have a perversely nocturnal brain I often write late into the night. So I had only just gone to bed last Thursday when the phone rang. My bedside clock said 3.11am. I answered with a sense of foreboding. Aside from the odd wrong number, any call we get between three and seven in the morning usually means that someone we know well is in some sort of trouble.
"So it proved. We had been called by a service called Lifeline. If you are old, infirm or housebound and live by yourself, you wear an electronic device like a pendant round your neck. Should you take a tumble and can't get up, you press it to speak to a central operator who has the phone numbers of your nearest and dearest. It's a reasonable system, though I can't help thinking guiltily that if we - we as individuals, and we as society - really cared about our elderly we wouldn't leave them quite so much to fend for themselves.
"Anyway, we flung on pullovers and whizzed two miles up the road to see what had happened to the lady concerned: a close relative, aged 86. The sight that greeted us was shocking. She had fallen on her way to the loo, opened up an ulcer, was shivering and half-conscious. Her skin was a ghastly blue. Worst of all, she was crumpled into a pool of her own blood. To my untutored eye, she seemed to have lost pints.
"It was just after 3.30am. I dialled 999. When I described the old lady's condition the operator gave clear, concise first-aid instructions and said an ambulance was on its way. We found blankets, made her as comfortable as we could, and prayed that help wouldn't arrive too late.
"Alas, this is Britain, 2007. At around 3.45am the phone rang. It was the London Ambulance Service. The essence of the call was: we're a bit busy tonight, sorry; can you cope? We said we would do our best. Seven minutes later our patient lost consciousness. Panicking, we called 999 again. Hang on in there, we were told. More agonising minutes passed. There is no helplessness worse than watching someone's life slip away for lack of prompt medical care in the middle of one of the richest, most sophisticated cities on the planet.
"At 4.05am we heard a noise outside and glimpsed a flashing blue light coming along the road. I raced down the stairs to guide the ambulance to the flat. But the surreal sight that greeted me almost made me keel over with amazement.
"It was a fire engine.
"The crew were already running towards me, breathing-gear and hoses at the ready. "Where's the incident?" one shouted.
""What incident?" I replied. "The incident at this address," he said. "Someone phoned 999 for the fire service."
""We called for an ambulance," I said. "An old lady's had a bad fall."
"The firemen looked bemused but undaunted. They leapt up the stairs with every bit of medical clobber they could find. But I sensed that the spectacle in the flat alarmed them almost as much as it terrified us. By now the pool of blood stretched a couple of feet in every direction from where the woman lay. It was 4.10am - 40 minutes after we had made the 999 call. Luckily, skilled help was soon on hand. A paramedic turned up in a car. She administered oxygen and issued an urgent request for an ambulance on her radio. Only then did it transpire that there were no ambulances available in our area: a huge swath of northwest London. One would have to be despatched from Islington. "Eight minutes max, this time of night," said one of the firemen, trying to be reassuring.
"It took 25. At 4.35am, about 65 minutes after we had made the first call, the ambulance arrived. The old lady finally got to hospital more than two hours after she had pressed her alarm.
"Interestingly, A&E was virtually empty. There had been - surprise, surprise - no horrific incident tying up all the ambulances in North London in the early hours of last Thursday morning. The truth, it seemed, was that there was only one manned ambulance covering the entire area that night. Why? Because (we were informally told) the authority concerned had suspended ambulance crews' overtime, presumably in an attempt to alleviate its well-publicised financial problems.
"Once again, as so often in Blair's Britain, we had encountered a colossal gap between what the politicians tell us is right with the country, and what our own eyes and brains tell us is wrong. More than £92 billion of our taxes is poured into the health service annually. That's around £1,800 a year for every man, woman and child in England and Wales. We are assured that things are getting better all the time. The NHS certainly boasts more bureaucrats and fancy computer programs than ever before. Yet a semiconscious 86-year-old lies in a pool of her blood for 65 minutes waiting for an ambulance. In what sense is that progress? What are the NHS's priorities, if not for dealing with that?
"The old lady, you will be pleased to know, is slowly recovering. Those Blitz-generation Londoners are as tough as nails."
But I think up here in East Anglia we have a story to top even that: at 2.00 in the morning, Ipswich Hospital sent home an 84-year-old heart patient, on his own, in a taxi, wearing only his pyjamas.
Raymond Rowe was "confused and bewildered" when he was woken and sent home and his story has today sparked an apology from hospital staff. Today, his son Trevor Rowe, of Bramford, said: "I can't believe they woke an 84-year-old at 1.45am to tell them to go home. Perhaps a 20 or 30-year-old could cope with it, but not a confused and bewildered elderly man." Trevor added that his father was not the sort of man to make a fuss.
Mr Rowe, of Robin Drive, was taken into the Heath Road hospital by paramedics on Monday with chest pains and breathlessness. His son visited him in the afternoon and evening and was told by doctors his father would probably be ready to go home the following day, but Mr Rowe, who had a stroke and heart bypass around eight years ago, was sent home from the Brantham Asessment and Oservation Ward earlier than planned because blood test results had come back sooner than expected.
You have to wonder, don't you, what sort of cretin the NHS is employing these days. Somewhere in Ipswich Hospital - still in Brantham Ward, presumably - is a member of staff, perhaps a doctor, perhaps a sister or a nurse, whose perception of what is right and proper doesn't stretch very far. It obviously didn't cause them, the other night, to wonder if two o'clock in the morning isn't a rather inappropriate time to be rousing a confused and elderly patient and shoving him out, alone, into the sleeping streets.
A spokesman for the hospital said "As with every other hospital in the country, we are very busy this week, it's that time of year and we had three wards closed to new patients because of a winter vomiting bug."
The GOS says: Yes, and your point is ...?
If any NHS workers should happen to be reading this, can I advise you that Ipswich Hospital is actually my nearest hospital. If ever I am so unfortunate as to require treatment in that establishment, I can guarantee that, while I may be advanced in years, I am not at all confused and I have not the slightest objection to making a very great deal of fuss. You try and shove me out on the streets before I'm ready, and you'll have a fight on your hands. That's a promise.
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