I realise this story may hardly compare with Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust's managing to kill 90 of its patients after infecting them Clostridium difficile. But it nonetheless seems to me a precise example of the daily drip, drip, drip of NHS incompetence. This is it.
My son, Theo, 14, broke his collarbone over the summer. It was a perfectly ordinary accident. He was playing with some chums and he fell over. We were in England at the time, in Kent, about 10 miles from Canterbury.
So, off to Canterbury hospital we went. I had vaguely heard, or so I thought, that the A&E department there had been downgraded, so I was accordingly reassured to see, as reached the ringroad, a series of signs with a large red H on them, with underneath, also in red, the letters A&E.
Ominously, however, on arrival, the A&E department turned out to be something called a Minor Injuries Unit. On the other hand, a broken collarbone sounded like a pretty minor injury to me, nasty of course but hardly life threatening. Plus perhaps Minor Injuries Unit was just another example of pointless rebranding. Perhaps this was what all A&E departments were now called? Christ, we had been in France for the last seven years. Who knew might have been happening in the meantime?
First impressions were pretty encouraging, however. We were able to register more or less at once and within about five minutes Theo was on his way to be X-rayed. This, too, was pretty speedy so that within about 30 minutes of arriving an X-ray had been done and the broken bone clearly confirmed.
This is when it started to go wrong.
I should stress that this was mid-afternoon on a weekday, so hardly the busiest of times. Nonetheless, we then had to wait fully two and a half hours before Theo got to see the doctor. Except that it wasn't a doctor. It was a Practice Nurse.
Because this was a Minor Injuries Unit and they don't have doctors there. No, they have Practice Nurses. And our Practice Nurse, who I should say could hardly have been kinder or more helpful, could only frown, look serious and say that Theo had to see an orthopedic specialist.
'Ok, yes, good. That's why we're here,' I said. 'When can we see him?'
'You'll have to go to casualty in Ashford', she said. 'There isn't one here.'
In other words, not only did Canterbury, a city of 40,000 people, have no A&E department, its hospital, which to my untrained eye was pretty enormous, had no orthopedic department.
Put it another way, we had to wait over three hours to be told what we could have been told when we arrived or, at worst, once the X-ray had been done.
Further, it takes a good half hour to drive from Canterbury to Ashford, meaning that by the time we got there it would have been close on five hours since Theo had broken his collarbone and he still wouldn't have seen a doctor. Plus, who was to say how long we would have to wait once in Ashford before he could see one?
On this point at least the Practice Nurse could reassure us. 'Don't worry. They know you are coming. They'll be expecting you.'
Except of course that they weren't.
We arrived at about 8 in the evening. If mid-afternoon in Canterbury Minor Injuries Unit is quiet, 8pm in Ashford's A&E department is anything but. In fact, it was a seething mass. As I subsequently discovered, one reason for this is that those who might once have gone to their nearest hospital, Canterbury for example, now all had to go to Ashford, which is accordingly swamped. In fact, if our experience is even remotely typical, scarcely able to cope at all.
So we waited. And we waited. And we waited some more. Three hours in total, my increasingly exasperated attempts to explain that we were apparently expected and that it was now six hours, then seven hours, then eight hours since Theo had broken his collarbone and he STILL hadn't seen a doctor having exactly no effect at all.
Eventually, at 11, he did see a doctor. He, too, could hardly have been nicer. But he could recommend only that Theo be kept in overnight to see the specialist in the morning. Which is what happened.
In short, though in neither case was the government target of all patients being seen within four hours broken, it had nonetheless taken eight hours before Theo was actually seen by a doctor. And this in southeast England, one of the most affluent and supposedly civilised areas of the world.
I know I am biased, but the contrast with France could hardly be more stark. Where we live, in deepest southwest France, the local hospital is about 20 minutes away. It serves a town, Jonzac for those who are interested, with a population of slightly less than 2,000. We have probably had to go to the A&E department there – and, yes, there is one, a real one, known as Urgences in French – perhaps half a dozen times. And we have never once had to wait more than five minutes. Seriously. And guess what? They have doctors, too. Real ones.
As a final little twist to this tale, when the next morning Theo did see the specialist, he told us Theo would have to come back in a month for a check-up. All perfectly routine.
'Not a problem,' I said. 'Expect that we have to go back to France on September 1. The appointment will have to be before that.'
'Of course, of course,' came the reply.
A few days later a card arrived with the date of Theo's appointment. It was for September 3.