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A local disaster, and life goes on – despite the politicians

July 14, 2017

A couple of days ago my local medical centre burnt down. It happened in the middle of the night. Nobody was in the building, because it doesn’t operate 24/7. Had the fire occurred three months ago, it could have incinerated patients in a hospice that was on the third floor. But perhaps not, because the staff might have dealt with the fire before it spread.

The blaze was so intense that people in nearby homes were evacuated and taken to the church hall nearby. Throughout the night and the next day, people came to the church with food and supplies for those who were temporarily homeless.

The medical centre was home to two general medical practices, a physio unit, an outpatient clinic and a pharmacy. For the past few years I’ve visited the centre three or four times a year – for doctor appointments, physio, annual check-ups that the National Health Service provides for people of my age. I have my retinas screened, my aorta measured, and when I had a serious back problem, the physio unit set me on the road to recovery.

The staff are courteous – some of them are volunteers manning the walk-in centre. The doctors are conscientious, even though these days I rarely get to see the person who is nominally “my doctor”, because she’s on a short working week. The centre has looked after my family for the best part of thirty years.

Every year or two there have been improvements – more screening programs, better communications, better trained staff. Thirty years ago, the receptionists behaved as though they were doing you a favour. Nowadays, they are kind, helpful and efficient. I don’t need to beg for a prescription from the doctor any more. The order goes straight down to the pharmacy. Regular prescriptions are available for me to collect without my needing to ask for them.

When I need to see a doctor, I rarely have to wait more than a day. While it’s true that my first GP, now long retired, had the time to talk about trivialities, with the result that I felt I knew him as a person far better than the current crop, that was then and this is now. A different ethos, more business-like and less personal, prevails. A maximum of eight minutes per consultation and only one problem can be discussed. Very different from the days when doctors would tease out the real problem hiding behind the apparent ailment.

But still, I have no complaints about the medical centre. Wait a minute – what am I talking about? It’s excellent. Why are we so grudging in giving credit to public services?

But now it’s gone. Did I appreciate it while it was there? Probably not. I took it for granted, just as many of us take for granted all the public services and civic amenities in the cities, towns and villages where we live – the schools, the police, the fire services, the libraries, the museums, the garbage collectors and the local council. We complain when things go wrong, but how many of us express our gratitude when things don’t go wrong?

The twenty-four thousand patients who use the centre will be accommodated elsewhere until things get back to normal. The GP practices will relocate to temporary premises. Other units will take up the slack. Many of us will perhaps not be thinking of the personal trauma that people suffer when their place of work is destroyed. We’ll just wait to be told of the temporary arrangements.

Why am I writing about such an everyday drama? After all, nobody died. Lots of people are inconvenienced, yes, but this was not Grenfell Tower. There is no whiff of scandal. It was most likely an unfortunate accident.

It’s not because the fire services were excellent. They usually are. Nor because people gathered round to help their neighbours. Commendable, yes, but I live in a country where people typically respond to emergencies with great generosity and compassion.

I write this because this fire, so close to home, cuts through the narrative running in my mind in an endless loop.

Not a day goes by – and on some days not an hour – when I’m not thinking about the state of my country. Not a day when I don’t search for evidence that the course we embarked upon a year ago might be reversed, when I don’t think of the dumb-headed politicians that helped to create the mess. The lies, the con tricks, the barmy ideologues on right and left who try to convince us that black is white, only matched by the self-serving antics of those in power across the Atlantic. The second-rate minds grappling with the biggest self-inflicted disaster for a couple of generations.

But then something happens to remind me that my immediate destiny doesn’t depend entirely upon the dullards running the country. There are a large number of institutions we all depend upon to live our normal daily lives. Mostly they still work – they have not been degraded to the extent that some politicians would like us to believe.

And as evidence, I present my experience after the fire.

I was due to have a blood test at the medical centre this morning. I assumed that I would have to wait a few weeks while the GP practice got itself organised. I was wrong. Last night, less than 48 hours after the fire, I got a call asking me to show up at a nearby health centre for the test – this morning.

I showed up. The test took place on time, and down a corridor I could see the staff from my practice busily setting up in their temporary accommodation. The centre I visited is three miles from home. The one that burnt down is a mile away.

Imagine the disaster recovery planning and the dedication of staff that allowed this to happen so soon after the catastrophe.

Britain’s National Health Service is not perfect. Much has been written and spoken in recent years about the effects of under-funding. Successive governments have tinkered with it to no great effect. It has had its share of failure and mismanagement.

But it’s still our largest public institution. And even as it struggles to deal with a rapidly aging population, and keep on an even keel despite haemorrhaging staff thanks to organisational flaws and the effects of Brexit, it can still come up with the goods. As it did in my town over the past couple of days.

Other institutions are also working. Again, not perfectly, and certainly not to everybody’s satisfaction. But by and large they’re holding the line.

So as I sit here with the tiny puncture mark in my arm already almost invisible, I’m profoundly grateful to the people who enable me to take for granted all the things that support a settled existence.

Images of people evacuating the ruins of Mosul’s Old City – stripped to the waist so they can’t hide suicide vests – remind me how bloody lucky we in Britain are – and will continue to be unless our politicians manage to screw up our future.

From → Politics, Social, UK

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