The 96 year old failed by Cardiff & Vale NHS health board

Lost in Llandough: please help my father

It is heartbreaking when the NHS fails the people it’s dedicated to help.

When my father Bob Skinner was brought home by air ambulance from Spain on 2 July, I was mightily relieved. It had been a huge battle getting him home after an accident on holiday, and it wouldn’t have happened without the valiant support of Dad’s MP, Stephen Doughty and his team. Yet his ordeal was only just beginning.

Fading hopes

Dad is still in hospital five months later. He has also been unable to eat properly for those five endless months, because the Cardiff & Vale university health board lost his dentures when transferring him between hospitals at the start of July. Shamefully, Cardiff & Vale has totally failed to take any responsibility for putting right the loss and getting Bob a replacement set of teeth. I made a formal complaint to Cardiff & Vale in September. Three months on – a quarter of a year on – we have had a string of broken promises to sort things out. I have twice asked Bob’s member of the Senedd, the economy minister Vaughan Gething, to help. Vaughan’s team contacted the ‘concerns’ team at Cardiff & Vale, but got nowhere. I feel so bad at failing to get the NHS to help Dad. But if Vaughan Gething, the Welsh government’s health minister through the worst days of the pandemic, can’t do anything, what hope do I have? Do I have to write to @PrifWeinidog (first minister) Mark Drakeford?

I say this to Suzanne Rankin, chief executive of Cardiff & Vale university health board. How would you feel if it was your father who was being neglected so badly? Can you imagine what it’s like for a 96 year old type 2 diabetic, constantly fobbed off and living off lukewarm soup and ice cream? Please, take responsibility and end the neglect. As a veteran who served in the army during the second world war, Bob deserves so much better. No one denies that the NHS is under huge strain, but Bob is just the latest example of how the service all too often lets down the most vulnerable and has to be chased repeatedly when things go wrong.

Happier days: Bob praises pandemic care home workers on primetime TV, April 2020

It’s heartbreaking seeing Dad in such a plight. He has an unquenchable spirit, although the past five months have tested his resolve to the limit. Back in the early days of the pandemic, he repeatedly went on national television to praise his care home workers. Our first lockdown reunion appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. And he survived Covid and a fall in his former care home – all experiences that he reported in a pandemic blog which we later turned into an e-book, which featured on BBC Wales Today.

I just hope that Dad’s Llandough ordeal will have a similar happy ending.

PS: I should point out that the medical staff at Llandough have been kind and caring, especially Hannah, Manuel, Siân and Andrea – and there will have been others whose names I do not know. And a decade ago I praised Cardiff & Vale for its amazing work getting staff to its hospitals in a blizzard, enabling my late mother’s cancer operation to go ahead.

PPS: I was grateful to receive a call this morning from a director responsible for dentistry at the Cardiff & Vale university health board. My father’s case now appears to be a priority, which is good news. Thank you, Bev.

POSTSCRIPT

Bob with his new teeth, Friday 13 January

It’s only fair to update this post with praise for Cardiff & Vale university health board’s response to my cry for action. Roz and Bev sprang into action and Bob got his replacement teeth soon after the new year. On a video call just before Christmas, the team explained how they intended to apply the lessons from Bob’s experience, in particular to check that a patient does not leave hospital without their dentures.

Bob has made amazing progress in January, and is now blogging again! You can follow his progress here.

Coronavirus: explaining and balancing risks

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The risk question: helmet or no helmet?

The coronavirus pandemic has raised an age old question. How do we assess risk? More difficult still, how do we balance competing risks?

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up a stack of such balancing acts. The most prominent one is where to strike the balance between health and economics. But other trade offs are apparent. Should we shut society down in the hope of killing the virus? How do we help the young, who are by all accounts much less at risk?

Yet our view of risk changes over time. My 16 year old aunt took 13 year old Dad to the cinema in London in the middle of the blitz in 1940, retreating home hours late after an air raid. Less dramatically, as a nine year old I’d venture alone across 1970s Cardiff on my bike to my aunt and uncle’s house in Rhiwbina. No one had ever heard of a bike helmet back then. Perhaps some children tragically ended up under the wheel of an Austin Maxi – but it didn’t stop us exploring on two wheels.

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Don’t get me wrong. We were right to make work and life safer. Too many people died unnecessarily. The Great Western Railway introduced ‘automatic train control’ in 1906 to warn drivers when they were passing a ‘distant’ caution signal. Later, the GWR system applied the brakes if the driver didn’t slow down. It saved countless lives. It took half a century and the catastrophic Harrow & Wealdstone and Lewisham disasters before nationalised British Railways introduced the same safeguards on the rest of the network.

Similarly, once controversial measures to tackle drink driving and smoking now seem like common sense.

Yet human beings are not good at understanding and assessing risk. Take cycling. I have had a cycling helmet for almost 30 years. I usually wear one. (Though I didn’t in the photo opening this post – climbing a very steep hill to Todi in Umbria in 2004.) Most parents today would be horrified by the idea of not putting a helmet on their children as they pedal up a deserted road.

But helmet use should be a choice. We need to get children into active lifestyles, such as cycling, walking and sport, to reduce the risk of obesity. A report in 2017 suggested that 35% of children were overweight or obese at 11. Yet MP Bill Grant demanded that children be forced to wear helmets, so criminalising a child pedalling down a quiet cul-de-sac without a helmet. This shows a complete inability to assess risk. Banning McDonalds and fizzy drinks would be far more effective.

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Lesley Whittle

It’s a similar story with child abduction. The tragic story of Madeleine McCann, still front page news 13 years after the three year old disappeared in 2007, heightened fears that children were at much greater danger than during our childhood. Five years earlier, the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire shocked the country. Yet child murders are remarkably rare, and are at historically low rates. Most are committed by parents or others known to the child. The difference is that today’s saturation media coverage and social media interest raises the prominence of tragedies. (Although I vividly remember the media frenzy about the awful ordeal of Lesley Whittle, a 17 year old kidnapped and killed by Donald Neilson in 1975.) We need to remember that such appalling cases are vanishingly rare. Be sensible, and teach children how to spot risks. (The age old advice about not taking treats from strangers remains relevant today.)

The communications lessons

Back to 2020, and the coronavirus conundrum. Global companies face a dilemma: do you take the same approach everywhere, or tailor policy and advice by region? Should you keep working from home globally, or allow countries like Australia and New Zealand to return to (close to) normal?

There’s no one answer. But whatever you decide, explain your approach.

Communication is key. It’s striking that the leaders who are natural communicators and educators like Jacinda Ardern have shone in this crisis. Leadership isn’t about bullshit and bluster. The greatest leaders educate the public. This hadn’t struck me until I read Steve Richards’ wonderful study of British prime ministers of the past 40 years. The greatest failures, like Theresa May, don’t even bother. Thatcher famously used her experience as a housewife to explain why the nation needed to spend no more than it earned. (Though the parallel was arguably misconceived.) And Tony Blair – at least before the historic blunder of the Iraq war – was the great communicator, bridging the then gap between traditional Labour and aspiring middle class voters.

Boris Johnson should have all the advantages. He has a vivid turn of phrase, when he remembers to speak English rather than Latin. He’s a larger than life character and people have in the past forgiven him a lot because of that. (Except in Liverpool.)

But the prime minister seems to lack any sensible advice in government. Dominic Cummings may have helped win the Brexit referendum, but so far has proved a disaster as Johnson’s chief adviser. The prime minister has a majority of 80. He should ditch partisan campaigning in favour of statecraft. Ditch the vengeance against people perceived not to be ‘one of us’. Learn a lesson from Roosevelt in the 1930s. Take the public into your confidence. Admit there is no simple answer: that we have to balance health and economics. After all, mass unemployment kills people as well as viruses. Children’s life chances are being damaged by lockdown. Start a conversation.

Coronavirus: do we have right to know facts about Prime Minister’s health?

 

Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?

The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.

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Coronavirus: my 93 year old father praises care workers on UK national TV

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I was a very proud son today. My 93 year old father Bob Skinner appeared on prime time national TV to praise the care home staff who are making his life comfortable and happy despite being ‘locked down’ for a couple of weeks as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Dad was interviewed live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain breakfast show. He explained how the carers at Sunrise of Cardiff have provided exceptional care, despite the challenges they themselves have faced during the pandemic. Bob described how he couldn’t have been luckier to be at his Sunrise home, thanks to the exceptional care from staff who, he said, have become friends. “I couldn’t praise them high enough,” he said. “I’ve even learned to play bingo!”

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COVID-19: how Brunel inspired NHS Nightingale Hospital

 

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By Robert Howlett, via Wikimedia Commons

Britain has been very impressed by the achievement of turning London’s ExCel conference centre into an emergency NHS coronavirus hospital, named after Florence Nightingale. Yet few realise that the Nightingale NHS Hospital London project follows the example of Isambard Kingdom Brunel over 160 years ago.

Brunel was the most flamboyant engineer of Victorian Britain. Most famous for his elegant railways, soaring bridges and pioneering steamships, he also designed a hospital in just six days during the Crimean War in 1855.

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COVID-19: Treasure that daily exercise

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Lockdown leisure: the view on my Wednesday exercise

These are the strangest of times. Our lives have changed almost overnight. Those carefree evenings out, family get-togethers and shopping trips are fading memories. (Although it’s a relief we no longer face that scramble to find a meeting room.)

Yet in Britain, for now, we can still go out for exercise. It has become a precious escape for me – a time away from the laptop screen, getting a physical challenge as a change from the intellectual challenge of communications work in the time of coronavirus.

It helps that the first week of Britain’s lockdown has been gloriously sunny. (Although that may have forced the lockdown, as crowds were gathering in London and people were flocking to Snowdonia and other national parks.) I revelled in the sunshine as I enjoyed my regular bike rides in Buckinghamshire, snatching an hour a time from work.

Don’t underestimate the importance of these daily escapes. These strange times are tough on us all. (Although obviously those at the front line in the NHS, care homes and serving the public face to face have a far greater challenge.) Getting out for some decent exercise is good for body and soul. You may experience a high that will get you through the loss of all those activities that you can’t enjoy at present.

The joy of lockdown exercise

Let’s make the most of these days of cycling and running while we can.

COVID-19: Bravo,Tesco

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Keep your distance: queuing at Tesco, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire

We’ve all seen the images of empty supermarket shelves. No loo paper for love nor money. Yet Britain’s supermarkets are doing a great job adapting to demand, and the need to let people shop while keeping apart, based on my experience at Tesco, Gerrards Cross.

I had a short wait getting into the store, as staff regulated the numbers in the shop. We were offered sanitiser at the entrance, which I used to wipe the trolley handle and my hands.

Once inside, I found everything I needed apart from liquid soap. It was a strangely calm shopping experience with fewer people in the shop. I did feel I needed to get it down quickly to allow others in.

There’s been a lot of talk of stockpiling – and I referred to this in my post last weekend about the British government’s communications response to COVID-19. We may have been too quick to judge: according to Kantar, the empty shelves reflect the fact we’re all adding a few more items to our baskets and making more shopping trips, rather than stockpiling.

PS: this unremarkable Tesco store has an unusual history. It was built over the Chiltern railway line and the tunnel collapsed on the tracks just after my train passed through in 2005. 

John Milton’s plague sanctuary closed by coronavirus

John Milton’s cottage, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire

This is the cottage to which poet John Milton fled in 1665 to escape London’s Great Plague. Now a museum commemorating Milton’s life and works, it has, ironically, been closed by the coronavirus pandemic.  

The 1665 plague outbreak was the last epidemic of bubonic plague in England. It killed around 100,000 people – a quarter of London’s population. No wonder Milton fled the city with his family. He completed his famous epic poem, Paradise Lost, here. 

Milton was also a republican support of Oliver Cromwell. He served in the Commonwealth government as Secretary for Foreign Tongues – what a wonderful title for a poet serving as a minister. 

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Today, the authorities managing the response to COVID-19 are discouraging anyone wishing to follow Milton’s example and escape from London to the country. Let’s hope the coronavirus outbreak soon passes and visitors will again be discovering the last surviving home of one of England’s most famous poets. 

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Careless talk costs lives: communicating in the time of coronavirus

The famous wartime poster. Imperial War Museum

As far as we’re aware, COVID-19 isn’t capable of listening to Boris Johnson’s daily press conferences. But the UK government’s confused communications strategy is risking lives in the greatest health crisis for a century. It swerves from reassurance to urge calls for action. It’s muddled.

Problem 1: lack of openness

At a time of national emergency, clear, consistent, open communication is vital. Boris Johnson’s government took far too long to realise that the old days of spinning a line off the record to a chosen political reporter had to end. ITV political editor Robert Peston was at the heart of a storm a week ago when he was briefed that the government was planning to quarantine older people for months. Within hours, England’s health secretary Matt Hancock gave an article to the Daily Telegraph to explain the government’s approach. The problem? Telegraph content is behind a paywall. To give the government some credit, within 36 hours it held the first of its daily news conferences, with the prime minister flanked by the top medical and scientific advisers.

Answer: be straight with people. Share the medical advice that’s shaping policy. Health crises are not political. The prime minister need to be a national not a tribal leader. He needs to educate the people – the sign of a true leader. Continue reading

The war against coronavirus

The hidden enemy, seen. Image: BBC

It’s hard to escape the wartime metaphors. Britain is waging war against coronavirus, COVID-19. Health workers are on the front line, their health and lives at risk in a fight to protect us all.

Meanwhile, a Conservative government is about to commit mind-blowing sums to save businesses and jobs – rightly so. We’ve seen nothing like it since the second world war. Only the state can find the extraordinary sums needed to get us through the next six months.

We in Britain are facing the fact we won’t be travelling to so many places we love – Italy, France, Spain and beyond – for some time. My mind went back to my father’s generation, who found themselves cut off from the continent when war broke out in 1939. (Although they didn’t have the chance to travel as far and as often as we have become used to.)

The British journalist James Cameron gave a radio talk on the BBC in January 1941 that spoke eloquently of the sense of loss in being separated from the continent and precious places and people. He told listeners:

“The thing that troubled me most … was that I wouldn’t be able to go to France. I insist on thinking of Armege, and the dusty white road south, and a barrel of cider coming over the pavé on a wooden cart. There will be no more river-fish cooked in the Hotel du Cerf Blanc – but we shall have it again, somewhere, sometime.”

So said James Cameron almost 80 years ago. And so say all of us in 2020, as we live with a hidden enemy that has closed down everyday life in Britain even more than the human enemies of the past. We shall return to the banks of Liffey, the hills of Tuscany and the dusty roads of la France profonde.

James Cameron, reporter extraordinaire. The Best of Cameron, 1983

Postscript: historian AJP Taylor told in his autobiography how he left his car in France in 1939 in the rush to get home on the outbreak of war. He went back a week later to collect it. It was the Nazi invasion of the Low Countries and then France from 10 May onwards that cut Great Britain off.