From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage

August 28th

Collateral damage from Covid-19 manifests itself in different ways in UK.  At the most dramatic end of the spectrum it manifests itself in the number of excess deaths above what would normally be expected to have occurred over the months since the pandemic arrived.  That number used to be quoted fairly frequently, but it has for some not particularly mysterious reason disappeared from our screens in recent weeks.   The last time I remember seeing it, the number was at least 10,000 above the official figure for Covid-19 deaths, but since the latter total has been significantly reduced following the redefinition of a Covid-19 death as one that has occurred ‘within 28 days of testing positive’, the difference must be a good deal more than that now.   Another dramatic manifestation is the figure of 10 million that I have seen being cited, and now have a direct interest in, as an estimate of the number of people in UK who will be on waiting lists for elective surgery by Christmas.

At the other end of the spectrum are the relatively minor irritations that have resulted from enforced changes to the way the NHS normally runs.   Our 53 mile round trip to Malton for a Covid test ten days ago would be a case in point.   But even that was a one-off for me, as distinct from some of the far more frequent idiosyncrasies of everyday interactions with the NHS.  My GP changed one of my prescriptions three weeks ago and asked me to go to the local private hospital, currently being used as the NHS blood testing centre, for a non-Covid blood-test once I have been taking it for a fortnight.  Not a problem, I thought.  I must have had at least a dozen blood-tests in the time we’ve lived in York, and can’t ever remember having to wait more than 15-20 minutes, usually much less, in a far from luxurious, but perfectly adequate, waiting room in York Hospital, in no way exposed to the elements.

So, full of misplaced optimism, I drove across the city on Monday afternoon, on the one hot sunny day of the week, to have a test, took one look at the queue stretching all the way along the side of the hospital in the glaring sun and decided to try again later.   An hour later, by now mid-afternoon but just as hot, I returned to find the queue looking just as forbidding, but decided I’d better join it anyway.   I attached myself to the back of the queue for a full 15 minutes during which several people spared me the ignominy of being the last in the queue, but the queue itself moved forward not an iota.   After 15 minutes, one survivor who had succeeded in reaching the front of the queue and attaining the sought-after goal of having someone spend three minutes extracting a thimble-full of his blood, came out and told the only person near me who plucked up the courage to have her worst fears confirmed that he had been standing (standing being the operative word) in the queue for two hours.  So I ducked for cover and went to ask the PPE-wearing gatekeepers on the hospital’s front door when the best time to come might be, and was told “either before 8.30 am or between 4.00 and 4.30 in the afternoon.”  So I went home and drove across the city again to get there by 8.20am on Tuesday, this time in the pouring rain, only to find the queue just as long as it had been the previous afternoon.   Everyone was in rain gear and under umbrellas, so I couldn’t ascertain whether they were, in fact, by way of a Kafkaesque nightmare, exactly the same people that I was standing behind the previous day.   This time it was decidedly chilly, and the wind was threatening to blow umbrellas inside-out, so I looked at the weather forecast, saw that there was a reasonable chance of the rain having stopped by the evening, and decided that a fourth trip across the city would be the better option.  Getting a blood-test was beginning to assume the proportions of one of the ordeals favoured by Greek mythology.    

So Tuesday evening comes, the rain has stopped and the wind has dropped, if only marginally, and I make my fourth trip across the city.  As I drive in, I glance down the side of the hospital and see that now, believe it or not, there is no queue at all.  Eureka!  Patience and perseverance do, indeed, win out in the end.   What I didn’t spot as I drove in to park my car is that the gate at the end is closed and there is a notice on it stating the rather obvious: ‘Closed’.   I know from much ascertaining and verifying that it is only supposed to close at 5.00pm, so I go back to the gate-keeper and ask him what on earth is going on.   ‘Someone had a heart-attack and collapsed in the queue this morning, and the testing-centre has had to shut indefinitely,’ he said darkly, looking sufficiently sombre to leave me to infer that the unsuccessful queuer had, unlike the previous afternoon’s success, not been a survivor.  I tell him that I’m not remotely surprised, and ask ‘So what do I do now?’.   He’s sorry, but he doesn’t have any idea, it is all really rather unfortunate.

What I do now is go home and phone my GP’s surgery the next morning – which is a different kind of ordeal in itself.  An hour and three quarters later I achieve my goal of an appointment to have a blood-test at one of the group’s surgeries, inevitably the one on the outskirts of the city furthest from our house, the next day, which will (in case you have lost the plot by now – as well, probably, as the will to live) be Thursday.  A few minutes after I put the phone down, my mobile releases a fusillade of pings telling me that a rapid series of text messages has come through: one confirming the appointment, the others telling me in no uncertain terms to wear a mask and not to try to access the building without first ringing the bell and waiting outside.  Telling me once is apparently not adequate.  Clear enough – except that when I get there at the appointed time there’s a masked lady waiting outside, but no bell to ring.   ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ I ask myself out loud.  ‘Just wait here.  They’ll fetch you,’ comes a voice from behind the mask; a voice so funereally lugubrious that for a fleeting moment I have a vision of the door opening and an undertaker in full Dickensian mourning-regalia appearing to ‘fetch’ me.  The masked lady is invited in by a reassuringly normal looking nursing assistant, and I wait alone with my mask.  One of the other members of staff returns with her shopping and asks on her way in, ‘Do they know you are here?’.   I confess that I don’t know whether they know I’m there (but don’t add that I’ve been standing ten feet from the window of the receptionist’s office for the past ten minutes), and point out that the bell I have been instructed to ring appears to be non-existent.   ‘I know,’ she says sadly, ‘but the people who make the appointments obviously don’t know.  I’ll tell the nurse you are here.’  This she duly does, and a few minutes later said nurse, dressed comfortingly in white rather than black, opens the door and asks me whether I have an appointment.  I assure her that I have, and five minutes later (three days later, if one were to be pedantic) my thimbleful of blood has been duly extracted.   It will only take five days for the results to be processed, I’m assured (and it isn’t even a test for Covid-19.)  It is perhaps a good thing that the change in medication that was the occasion for the whole saga was an upping of the daily dose of blood-pressure tablets.