Helen Martin: It’s obvious that NHS can’t cope

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THE first reaction from most people to the news that the children’s ward at St John’s in Livingston would effectively be closed to overnight admissions for the summer because of staff shortages was, quite naturally, that someone, somewhere in the management echelons, had screwed up.

In which case most managements of most businesses are also in the dock.

Short-staffing is the way of the world now, often for no other reason than money, be it to increase profit margins or out of financial necessity just to keep going.

Most companies, whatever they do, service or produce, can plod along for a considerable time when they are under-staffed – maybe forever if they are prepared to perform to lower standards and kiss quality goodbye.

Indeed, for many years, most hospitals would have had to shut shop if it weren’t for the number of junior doctors staggering round wards with match-sticks propping their eyes open in an effort to counter 24 hours with no sleep. Those days, we are told, have gone.

But St John’s, like many other hospitals and surgeries, in fact the whole of the NHS plus private clinics and nursing homes for the elderly, is facing a staff shortage that no amount of money can solve.

We don’t have enough doctors or nurses. Are we not training enough? Are graduates taking their talents abroad for higher salaries? Or choosing not to work in the profession at all? Or is it all down to increasing demand?

We are not alone. Apparently Australia, New Zealand and the US are also short of these professionals. All of us are in competition to attract those from overseas, which often means “stealing” their talents from their native countries.

And even without the recent employment restrictions imposed by the UK on non-EU workers such as nurses who will have to leave after six years if they don’t earn more than £35,000, some of the applicants are deemed unacceptable, either because of language difficulties, different attitudes and practices to medicine, insufficient training, or even an attitude to patients that just doesn’t sit well in the NHS.

In some other walks of life, the gaps can be filled by over-promoting someone who is still on the learning curve. But not in medicine where it can be a matter of life and death, not to mention our increasing litigation culture kicking in when things, inevitably, go wrong.

Many hospitals are facing similar challenges. The fact that Edinburgh’s Sick Kids is geographically very close to St John’s and capable of taking in-patients is the clincher in deciding it’s better to close the ward at night than run it on a such a small number of staff it wouldn’t be safe. That decision is also transparent and open, saying loudly and clearly to the public that there are not enough staff to do the job properly – a refreshing change from public services insisting they are coping well while the structure and systems beneath them are creaking and groaning towards collapse.

This cannot go on. We need to do whatever is necessary to cure the ills of the NHS. There is no better or more convincing argument than hospitals themselves admitting when the game’s a bogey.

Prisoner’s civil rights case is a real turn-off

I’M all for penal reform and rehabilitation where it’s possible. Prison should be about more than punishment.

But – I never thought I’d say this – civil rights can go too far, particularly in the case of convicted rapist David Penman who has gone to court, raising a judicial review against Scottish Ministers.

Why? Because he was disciplined in Saughton prison for illicitly making pens in a prison shed and punished with a TV ban that lasted all of – three days.

Due out in October 2017, he’s entitled to go for parole before that. But I hope they consider that a prisoner who can’t take a three-day TV ban on the chin without squandering pots of public money on a judicial review still hasn’t learned how to be a decent member of society.

All aboard

BIKES on trams? No problem. As far as I’m concerned they can take prams, wheelchairs, pianos, three-piece suites, farm animals, boa constrictors and bags of manure.

I’ve still never set foot on a tram but from what I see in passing, most are empty outside rush hour.

On track for sunday drivers

SCOTRAIL is a different matter – though once more, a business in trouble because of short-staffing. Until now a seven-day service has been provided with six-day staffing relying on volunteer drivers to turn up on Sundays.

The new operators admit that is a ridiculous state of affairs. Fortunately it’s easier and quicker to train and recruit train drivers than brain surgeons.

Can’t most of us afford to buy paracetamol?

SCOTLAND’S free prescriptions have always seemed fair to me. Who wants to tax the sick? But I’m stunned to learn almost 2.7 million ‘scripts were given for paracetamol in Scotland last year, the fourth most prescribed drug in the country.

They don’t need to be prescribed at all. A pack of 16 is readily available for 30p in the supermarket – less than the worth of the doc’s time to write it up. Who in their right minds, unless they are among the seriously impoverished who I don’t grudge in the slightest, expects to get them for nothing and why are doctors routinely wasting prescription pads giving them out?