“God knows why an institution capable of caring for 65 million people from cradle to grave can’t run its own car parks, but no doubt there are sound bureaucratic reasons why emptying coins from machines is more challenging than perfecting stem-cell research.”
Now and again, when it comes to illuminating the festering wounds of a nation in serious decline, it’s the tiny things that shine the most piercing light. Nothing in Christendom or beyond is as trifling as the parking ticket hard luck story. Most of us get a ticket from time to time, and dullards like me enjoy boring others with the intricate detail of why it constitutes the worst miscarriage of justice since L’affaire Dreyfus.
Every few months, a report about a zealous warden ticketing a motorist at a zebra crossing makes jolly tabloid filler. But that is as good as it gets, and by and large the errant parker who spends longer than 17 seconds on the subject should be fined 10 times the original amount.
The case of 75 NHS staff at Cardiff’s University Hospital of Wales is different. In a decision binding on the other 72, a court has decided that three of them must pay both their fines, which after months of non-payment have increased to £128 per ticket, and the court costs of £26,000. One nurse’s claim to owe £150,000 may be exaggerated, but some owe thousands. Even in the Chancellor’s magical realm of overpaid public sector workers, no nurse could raise that without surgically removing the ring fingers of every married patient on the ward and nipping to Hatton Garden in London. And that – I know, I know, it’s PC gone mad – is against the rules.
Why it’s within the rules for a car parking firm to fleece those widely regarded as the most drainingly overworked, lethally underpaid and ephemerally heroic among us is a tale simply told. Cardiff’s Labour-run council, though committed to scrapping hospital parking charges, is locked into a long-term PFI contract with a French company called Indigo. If you want a vignette of what creeping privatisation looks like, last year it made £2.8m from a single Welsh hospital car park. That’s the price of almost 3,000 cataract surgeries, 500 heart bypass operations, or 250 liver transplants.
God knows why an institution capable of caring for 65 million people from cradle to grave can’t run its own car parks, but no doubt there are sound bureaucratic reasons why emptying coins from machines is more challenging than perfecting stem cell procedures and running double blind immunotherapy clinical trials.
Yet however compelling the need to divert money from replacing arthritic hips to enriching French company directors, it hardly explains why Welsh nurses are threatened with bankruptcy for using public car parks when the staff one was full.
Some got the penalty charge notices because their work kept them longer than the designated shift. Others refused to buy tickets on arriving, and later to pay the fines, in the naive assumption that common sense and decency would lead Indigo to let them off. For a while, it did.
The firm will claim that it was lenient for as long as possible but that the continued flouting of the rules forced it to law. Maybe it isn’t as grasping as it seems, even if an employee not long ago ticketed a cardiologist at a Dundee hospital, regardless of the siren on the car’s roof and the note explaining that he was attending an emergency. And let’s face it, NHS workers have no legal right to ignore a parking fine just because a crisis developed at the end of a shift, and they chose to look after the dangerously unwell for an hour of unpaid overtime rather than rush back to the car in time.
In this case, the chances are that the individuals will be rescued by donors to the Just Giving page. But it crystallises the gnawing sense that something is terribly, terribly wrong with British priorities when NHS workers need crowdfunding to avoid having to sell their homes for the benefit of a parasitic private firm.
Of course, the NHS has bigger worries than car parking. New figures on cancer survival rates confirm how far we lag far behind European countries of similar, and much lesser, wealth. The GP system is under murderous pressure in cities and large towns. Almost every healthcare professional you talk to fears for the future without drastically increased spending. Recruiting and retaining staff is already a struggle, and will worsen with Brexit. Apparently nurses feel under-appreciated, though for the life of me I can’t think why.
Despite the suspicion that huge chunks of the monolith are held together by stitches that could burst at any moment, somehow the NHS continues to work. Looking across the Atlantic to Donald Trump’s thankfully faltering efforts to butcher Obamacare and remove health insurance from millions of Americans; you shudder with relief at the comparison.
But while it may be our only real religion, as Nigel Lawson put it, it is not engraved in stone that the NHS will survive as we know and revere it in perpetuity. The penalising of nurses for watching the clock at the start of the shift and ignoring it at the end is a symptom of a chronic disease which afflicts more than the health service. Call it freemarketitis, or profitoma, or Philip Hammond Syndrome By Proxy, it is the veneration of private commercial rapacity over self-sacrificial public service.
This sepsis in the body politic has been poisoning the national bloodstream for more than 30 years. Nothing nothing but a radical reappraisal of what is important to us can begin the process of curing it.
Everyone the Government blames for the NHS crisis – except themselves
1/6 The elderly
“We acknowledge that there are pressures on the health service, there are always extra pressures on the NHS in the winter, but we have the added pressures of the ageing population and the growing complex needs of the population,” Theresa May has said. Waits of over 12 hours in A&E among elderly people have more than doubled in two years, according to figures from NHS Digital.
2/6 Patients going to A&E instead of seeing their GPs
Jeremy Hunt has called for a “honest discussion with the public about the purpose of A&E departments”, saying that around a third of A&E patients were in hospital unnecessarily. Mr Hunt told Radio 4’s Today programme the NHS now had more doctors, nurses and funding than ever, but explained what he called “very serious problems at some hospitals” by suggesting pressures were increasing in part because people are going to A&Es when they should not. He urged patients to visit their GP for non-emergency illnesses, outlined plans to release time for family doctors to support urgent care work, and said the NHS will soon be able to deliver seven-day access to a GP from 8am to 8pm. But doctors struggling amid a GP recruitment crisis said Mr Hunt’s plans were unrealistic and demanded the Government commit to investing in all areas of the overstretched health service.
3/6 Simon Stevens, head of NHS England
Reports that “key members” of Ms May’s team used internal meetings to accuse Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, of being unenthusiastic and unresponsive have been rejected by Downing Street. Mr Stevens had allegedly rejected claims made by Ms May that the NHS had been given more funding than required.
4/6 Previous health policy, not funding
In an interview with Sky News’s Sophy Ridge, Ms May acknowledged the NHS faced pressures but said it was a problem that had been “ducked by government over the years”. She refuted the claim that hospitals were tackling a “humanitarian crisis” and said health funding was at record levels. “We asked the NHS a while back to set out what it needed over the next five years in terms of its plan for the future and the funding that it would need,” said the Prime Minister. “They did that, we gave them that funding, in fact we gave them more funding than they required… Funding is now at record levels for the NHS, more money has been going in.” But doctors accused Ms May of being “in denial” about how the lack of additional funding provided for health and social care were behind a spiralling crisis in NHS hospitals.
5/6 Target to treat all A&E patients within four hours
Mr Hunt was accused of watering down the flagship target to treat all A&E patients within four hours. The Health Secretary told MPs the promise – introduced by Tony Blair’s government in 2000 – should only be for “those who actually need it”. Amid jeers in the Commons, Mr Hunt said only four other countries pledged to treat all patients within a similar timeframe and all had “less stringent” rules. But Ms May has now said the Government will stand by the four-hour target for A&E, which says 95 per cent of patients must be dealt with within that time frame.
6/6 No one
Mr Hunt was accused of “hiding” from the public eye following news of the Red Cross’s comments and didn’t make an official statement for two days. He was also filmed refusing to answer questions from journalists who pursued him down the street yesterday to ask whether he planned to scrap the four-hour A&E waiting time target. Sky News reporter Beth Rigby pressed the Health Secretary on his position on the matter, saying “the public will want to know, Mr Hunt”. “Sorry Beth, I’ve answered questions about this already,” replied Mr Hunt. “But you didn’t answer questions on this. You said it was over-interpreted in the House of Commons and you didn’t want to water it down. Is that what you’re saying?” said Ms Rigby. “It’s very difficult, because how are we going to explain to the public what your intention is, when you change your position and then won’t answer the question, Mr Hunt”. But the Health Secretary maintained his silence until he reached his car and got in.
You’ll be shown the percentage of critical cases that have to wait more than 4 hours and the funding shortfall for your area.