Being a moderately busy type, I often have to catch up with news and programmes via podcast. Yesterday I listened to a remarkable edition of BBC Radio 4’s The Long View from 3 April. In this programme, titled ‘NHS Failings at Stafford’, presenter Jonathan Freedland interviews Julie Bailey, the founder of the Cure the NHS campaign group, about her experiences at Stafford hospital as part of a wider look at the issue of poor care and the supposed lack of compassion in the NHS.
Predictably, within a few seconds, Ms Bailey attacks the attitude of nurses on the ward where her mother died. Asked by Freedland “what was your own experience of shortages of nurses at Stafford hospital”, she says,
There was (sic) barely any nurses and those that were there were very uncaring..conditions on the ward were very unclean, there were..blood-spattered dressings on the floor..
the nurses had to pass four other bays before they reached my mum’s..you’d have to basically just care for the patients yourself.
However, apparently without realising it, she then makes a remarkable confession. Asked by Freedland, “how bad did things get, the conditions that you saw at Stafford?”, she answers,
Patients were just basically neglected, For the first 6 weeks of my mum’s stay in the hospital, we were able to get round the 8 patients and help them. But after my mum’s condition deteriorated..they were basically left to their own devices..
For the last 2 weeks of my mum’s life she just clung to me like a baby and whereas we were able to help the other patients before, the last 2 weeks we just couldn’t get to them, so you’d just hear the cries of “help, help”, you’d hear a thud as they fell onto the floor.
The doors would be shut, so you’d just presume that they’d fallen on the floor. You’d just have to leave them crying out “help, help”, then they’d go quiet”.
What?! Freedland just moves on to the next part of his programme, without doing his job and challenging that statement or asking for elaboration. But think about what Ms Bailey just said She was looking after patients until she was too busy to do it, and then after that she had to ignore them even though she knew they’d fallen and needed help – even though the reason for her own mother’s deterioration (and eventual tragic death) was a fall.
Ms Bailey has criticised the lack of compassion, the ‘callousness’ of staff, at Stafford hospital so vehemently that nurses have been spat at in the street and called ‘murderer’ in front of their children. Yet she ignored people that she knew were lying on the floor in serious trouble and needed help urgently, leaving them “there crying out ‘help help'” until they went quiet.
Because she had her hands too full looking after her mum.
In the space of a couple of paragraphs, Ms Bailey acknowledges that there were hardly any nurses on the ward and admits that she left patients to lie in trouble on the floor until they went quiet – yet she ignores the obvious conclusion: that so few nurses looking after not just one patient but a whole ward of seriously-ill patients couldn’t possibly meet all the many and various needs.
Instead, she calls them ‘very uncaring’ while her actions were apparently merely understandable. It would be unreasonable to expect a patient’s relative to tend to fallen, elderly patients – but she could certainly have shouted out until someone heard, rather than leaving them until they went quiet.
The fact that this statement passed unchallenged typifies what has been wrong with so much of the coverage of events at Mid Staffs and the interviews with Ms Bailey and other “Cure” campaigners. Statements of even the most vitriolic nature pass without challenge or query as interviewers fail to do their job and ask the difficult questions, instead just offering a ‘free pass’ to say whatever they want, however they want – on national television to millions of viewers, many of whom don’t know any better than to accept it as truth.
As I’ve written before, context is everything if you want to understand something properly. What might seem to be shocking callousness or neglect in one setting might be a heroic effort in another. But the context at Stafford has been almost completely ignored.
The cries from ‘Cure’ that nurses at Stafford didn’t care have been simply accepted as fact by far too many people who should know better. And they have been seized on by a Government keen to damage public affection for the NHS, eager to damage the Labour party’s perception as the creators and defenders of the NHS – and desperate to divert attention away from the real issues.
Yet in this interview, no doubt inadvertently, one of the NHS’ chief critics put her finger on short-staffing as the fundamental cause of poor care in the health service – and even admitted that she did the same and worse when her own time and resources were under pressure.
Jeremy Hunt has completely ignored the overwhelming conclusion of the Francis report, which mentions just the exact word ‘understaffing’ 243 times while Hunt mentioned it not once in his ‘response’ to the report. It’s not an omission you can make accidentally, and the only logical conclusion is that Hunt and his party have no intention of reversing the chronic understaffing they continue to inflict on the NHS, and so want the public’s attention elsewhere.
A ‘lack of compassion’ is a convenient ‘straw man’ to attack for this purpose, and ittingly or unwittingly, Cure the NHS and the media have been complicit in this sleight of hand. The consequence of this is that nurses doing their best to cope with near-impossible demands have become demonised in the eyes of people who don’t know, or don’t care, what the real story is.
And last week’s Long View programme demonstrated that very clearly, if you have ears to hear it.