It was not too long ago that as News Editor of the Bexley Times, I ran a campaign to save the A&E at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup. The plans to slash services at the hospital were patently ludicrous. Its A&E services were award-winning as was its maternity unit yet it was put to residents that ‘streamlining’ services would be better for them. Of course in consultancy-speak streamlining meant cuts and closure.
There were obvious practical concerns. For instance, we worked out that if you happened to have a car accident on certain parts of the A20, it would take an ambulance an extra 20 minutes to get you safely to a hospital as opposed to under 10 if Queen Mary’s remained open. And further digging found that in the run up to the closure, the Sidcup A&E was taking in overflow patients from the neighbouring hospitals as they couldn’t cope with the high volume of emergencies. So why close it? It made no sense.
It soon became clear that the move may have had more to do with the terrible financial straits that neighbouring PFI hospitals, Princess Royal University Hospital in Bromley and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, were in – owing more than £100m to private investors. It sadly seemed to be the case of culling efficiency to pay the debt of inefficiency and all the more galling when we exposed the fees paid to executives hired to make the cuts.
The campaign ultimately failed, the emergency unit closed two years ago and the 80,000 patients who would ordinarily have used Sidcup’s A&E now go to other hospitals in Kent and London. Sometimes as a journalist you take on campaigns that are doomed to fail just to add your support to the community. We knew that Queen Mary’s would close because the signs were there in the consultation process. The quango, ironically called A Picture of Health, produced a consultation that was perplexing, confusing and full of jargon and despite the majority of respondents disagreeing with the plans (including hundreds of Bexley Times readers signing the petition which went to Downing Street) the plans were given the green light.
This alone seemed morally unjust. But the sinister PR machine made the business of closing an NHS A&E all the more murky. We would receive countless press releases ‘revealing’ how plans to close the unit were supported by hundreds of clinicians yet we struggled to find any who welcomed the plans. When challenged, A Picture of Health refused to reveal the names of those professionals who supposedly gave the plans their approval. After a year-long battle where I was forced to complain to the Information Commissioner, A Picture of Health admitted that no such list of people existed which exposed the PR as the propaganda it was.
I was shocked and frustrated at the subterfuge. On the face of it, the organisation was hired to create a fair and open consultation about the future of a local hospital. Instead it was misleading the public and gagging the staff affected by the changes.
When Sidcup closed, we feared that other wards would follow… and they have. Rumours that hospital land at the Frognal Road site was ringfenced for development have been proven to be true. Indeed the Trust supposedly managing the hospital has gone into insolvency whilst a significant chunk of tax payers money is being thrown into the bottomless pit of PFI debt. The future of Queen Mary’s is bleak.
Now, history is repeating itself with plans to close my local A&E at University Hospital, Lewisham. Out comes another jargon-filled questionnaire with such closed questions as:
To what extent do you agree or disagree that the efficiency of the hospitals that make up South London Healthcare NHS Trust needs to improve to match that of top performing NHS organisations?
Everyone wants efficient hospitals but the question above treats it as fact that Lewisham is failing. Where is the evidence that University Hospital, Lewisham is inefficient when figures suggest that approximately 750,000 people use its A&E alone? Just a fraction of those 750,000 hospital users made their feelings known last month but it brought Lewisham town centre to a standstill. In almost every shop window there are posters like the one below and there are people with petitions at my local GP and standing outside the shopping centre. It is plain to see the strength of feeling in the community, but will we be listened to this time?
The NHS should be healthcare provision for all at the point of need. Instead, it is being used as the family silver by generations of governments who sold vital services to private investors offering little return.
As Councillor Liam Curran, from Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, said:
Hospitals should not be run as profit ventures – they are not supermarkets, to be closed if they don’t make enough money.
Although he will know that the blame for this lies with his own party under Tony Blair and previous Tory governments who decided to privatise the NHS chunk by chunk under the nose of the electorate.
My fear is that a deal has already been struck to strip us of our hospital and no matter how many times we ‘have our say’, it is the private companies who hold the power. However, people power should not be underestimated, especially in light of the so-called Starbucks apology. We have seen a good community hospital dismantled in Sidcup and we can’t afford to let it happen in Lewisham. So, please join the campaign and sign the petition here.
Last Tuesday, I met seven of the remaining ‘Few’ who fought in the Battle of Britain. All of the gentlemen I met were charming and had some incredible stories – some of which could not fit into the article that I co-wrote for the Sunday Mirror. You can read it by clicking the image above or at the link here.
One of the fascinating stories I heard was from Battle of Britain veteran Nigel Rose about one of his 602 squadron leaders, Douglas Farquhar. He famously shot down a Heinkel 111, the first thought to have been shot down in Scotland on February 22, 1940. An archive picture of the downed aircraft is available here.
The Argus at the time reported:
After a Spitfire pilot brought down a Heinkel bomber yesterday he landed close in and took the crew of four Germans prisoner. The village postman reported -’ I saw a big black machine flying from the sea. It was very low and the Spitfire was almost on top of it. Then I heard a burst of fire and the bomber crashed.’ A farm worker followed on – ‘Three Germans climbed out of the bomber and lifted out another man who seemed badly injured. They carried him across the field. They then went back and got in again. They weren’t inside long. They jumped out and smoke and flames shot up’.
As this happened the Spitfire landed and the pilot clambered out and raced toward the Heinkel a few seconds late. Flames were rising 30ft from the bomber. The British pilot guarded the Germans until troops arrived and then helped them carry their wounded comrade to a farm close by.
However, a rather different tale of this particular incident that demonstrates a rare appearance of humanity shared by ‘enemies’ is less well told. Mr Rose told me:
The Heinkel made a forced landing in North Berwick and he looked down at them and thought ‘Goodness, probably what they’ll do is set fire to this and we must stop that at all costs’ as there were valuable bits and pieces of technology on board. So he decided to land beside them but failed to notice there was a huge ditch running across the middle of the field, instead landing at high speed.
As the German’s set alight their plane, the British Spitfire ‘cartwheeled’ into a bog and the Squadron Leader was flung upside down “hanging from his straps” from his wrecked Spitfire. Nigel continued:
There he hung and he didn’t know quite what to do. Meanwhile, the Germans came out of their Heinkel and stood around gawping and wondering what on earth was going on – was this how the RAF conduct themselves? Eventually decency took over and they held out their hands and allowed him to fall gently into their arms, this was when chivalry was high.
Dusting himself off, Farquhar is said to have then raced up the hill with the German soldiers to pull the injured German rear gunner further away from the burning Heinkel wreckage. The confident RAF man then took charge of his rescuers, according to Nigel:
He said, ‘look here, the land army are going to be here any minute so you best hand over your weapons’ and they did. But it didn’t end there, when the land army arrived they arrested all of them so it took a bit of sorting out…
But sort it out they did, said Nigel, and in the best British tradition, they “all had a cup of tea”. This calamity however didn’t retract from Farquhar’s service, he was given a Distinguished Flying Cross later that month by King George VI on a visit to Drem. And one of the Heinkel’s crew, Fw Sprigarth was mentioned in Parliament for his part in the rescue. But his actions failed to rescue him from the inevitable… he and his crew Lt R E Grote, Uffz Berger and the injured Uffz Bachman were kept as prisoners of war.
One of Farquhar’s fellow pilots from Drem, Frank Howell, may have found that somewhat unfair. In a letter to his brother Henry, he wrote:
The only thing of interest that has happened up here is that awful show when the Heinkel landed at St Abbs Head. Of course you must have read about it. The ‘dashing’ pilot landed near the machine and tried to prevent the Jerries firing it, of all the crass stupidity. I have never seen such a miserable attempt at being a hero or something. It was the C.O. of 602 squadron! A squadron leader!!! My my. The field was like a miniature mountain like this (cartoon drawing) and of course he went ass over tit and landed flat on his back like this (cartoon drawing) and was firmly stuck in the cockpit upside down! Of course the Germans, being decent chaps, lifted what was left of the tail and got him out, thus saving his life – or if not that, from a nasty headache. Actually, the Heinkel was nicely set alight, whilst the wretched S/L was on the wrong end of a revolver, trying to bluff a bullet headed German to hand it over! The scream of it all is that the ‘ace British Spitfire pilot’ had not got even a peashooter with him!! A silly man. The King is coming to see us all tomorrow and I expect he will get a DFC or something; I know what he really wants!
Of course, wartime stories are often vulnerable to hyperbole and myth but I wonder how many other stories are out there that did not fit into the ‘good vs bad’ history books and have faded over time.
This is another feature I did for W1 Features Agency. It tells of the fantastic work that volunteer army nurse Dawn McDonald did out in Afghanistan.
You can read it here.
For the last three months I have been working on a documentary series about murder in the countryside for the Crime & Investigation Network. So when I was asked to do an article for W1 Features Agency about Natalie Matthews, wife to Charlton FC’s Danny Hollands, and their “miracle babies” it was a welcome relief.
Triplets Sofia, Annabella and Mia were a medical marvel as two were conceived through IVF and one naturally. The story made the Sunday Mirror yesterday. You can read the feature here.
That’s the beauty of being a freelance journalist. One day you are rummaging through police crime scene photographs and the next you are cooing at cute pictures like the one above.
They share the trademark blond barnet but the Johnson brothers seem to have little else in common. But do BoJo and JoJo share the same media adviser?
At first glance it would seem unlikely… Boris certainly – rightly or wrongly – grabs more headlines with the latest foot in mouth gaff apparently insulting the Irish. After his ill advised comments about Liverpool, then Portsmouth, it seems that he can’t even make a crass joke about buggering Bognor without conjuring up a media storm.
Jo on the other hand is meeker and less controversial than his older brother. Even he told the BBC:
Well he is very flamboyant and charismatic. I’m much more low key and, dare I say it, more focused and serious minded.
However, reading the Evening Standard on February 9, I had difficulty in telling them apart. In the Standard article, which has strangely disappeared from the website, Boris speaks to Jemima Khan under a headline ‘So, Teflon Boris, how do you keep getting away with it?’ It reads:
Having worked as a journalist for most of his adult life, “endlessly attacking people who would try to take tough decisions and make the world better”, he is painfully aware of what makes the headlines… “In the end, it wasn’t satisfying because I was being cruel sometimes, just sort of sitting there lobbing rocks over people’s walls and causing a great deal of dismay without actually having to put myself in the firing line. I thought it was fundamentally unfair.”
This answer seemed awfully familiar to one that Boris’s baby brother gave to me, when working at the esteemed organ, the Bromley Times in 2009:
I know very well that as a journalist it is easy to throw stones but there comes a point that you have to stand up and see whether you can do any better.
As Private Eye would say, Just Fancy That!
Nobody ever likes the daily commute in London but this year there is certainly more tension in the air.
That is because it is 2012 and in just six short months, 11 million world visitors will be flocking to our fair city and negotiating the capital underground. And that is not to mention the 14,000 athletes, 7,000 officials and 20,000 media…
Commuter confusion has also set in with Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) suggesting London workers should avoid the tube during The Games while today Mayor Boris Johnson actively encouraged officials to use the tube .
But one message that has been consistent is that of investment with Transport for London (TfL) emphasising a whopping £6.5billion on the Underground network ahead of the Olympics.
Yet research I carried out last year showed me that improvements do not necessarily mean safer travel.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, I discovered that emergency ambulance call-outs at King’s Cross St Pancas tube station actually soared by 70 per cent following the opening of the international rail terminal in 2008. You can see a summary of the statistics here (and on the link under information and data).
According to the data, incidents involving injury or illness at the underground station rose to 145 in 2008 from just 85 the previous year.
Passenger numbers soared from an estimated 55,000 per hour in 2006 to 82,000 per hour – some 300,000 a day – after the launch of Eurostar’s King’s Cross International and the new Thameslink station in late 2007.
Compare this to an expected 800,000 people expected to use London Underground on the busiest day of the Olympics, we should perhaps prepare ourselves for more blue lights than Gold medals.
But it is only fair to see the data in context – more people means more accidents – and at least it is safer than other European networks, according to TfL.
To put these in context, LU serves 270 stations and manages 260 of these. Last year (2010/11) over 1.1bn passenger journeys were made on the network and we actively encourage staff to offer ambulances to all customers in distress. In most cases the number of ambulance calls is proportional to the busyness of the station. For example Kings Cross, one of our busiest stations – last year served over 70 million customers, has the highest number of accidents that require an ambulance.
Crime on the Underground and Docklands Light Railway (DLR) fell by seven per cent last year and a recent Office of Rail Regulation report indicated that the Tube is the safest significant-sized railway in Europe, with a safety record 15 times better than the European average.
The statistics I obtained certainly seem to support their assertion with just over 2.5 per cent of injuries caused by crime compared to 53 per cent caused by an accident or medical emergency.
And out of the total 18,177 incidents, just 174 (0.96 per cent) resulted in fatalities.
There were just four crime-related deaths in the last five years at King’s Cross St Pancras, Leytonstone, Hanger Lane and Highbury & Islington.
Some 30 deaths occurred on the tube network due to existing medical conditions or illness with five accidental deaths, 11 deaths caused by trespass and 124 suicides.
Despite its relatively safe record – when it comes to crime particularly – there can be no doubt that there will be more incidents with thousands more tube users during peak time. And thanks to non-negotiable unions and expected 30 minute delays on the Jubilee line – perhaps we should all take the advice of the ODA and practice our own athletic skills and walk, cycle or sprint to work this summer.