Express & Star

The NHS isn’t Fawlty, it is just too popular

Basil Fawlty would have given a groundbreaking insight into the problems afflicting the NHS.

‘The NHS is fine. It’s the patients that are causing the trouble’

For the benefit of younger readers, Basil Fawlty was a Torquay hotelier who felt that the principal obstacle to the smooth running of his hotel was the guests. Played by John Cleese, his trials and tribulations were showcased in a fondly remembered 1970s television comedy.

With even politicians now having moved from saying the NHS is breaking, to that it is actually broken, constructive input from any source, even Basil, is of value.

The NHS is fine, Basil would say. It’s the patients that are causing the trouble. They are just about the only NHS stakeholder not on strike, and indeed never strike. He would point out that there are so many of them, with the number growing all the time, that the great institution of the NHS is unable to cope.

That’s it then. The NHS is not a failure which hasn’t kept up with the times, but an enormous success, as evidenced by its massive popularity with the British public for whom it has iconic status and is talked of in reverential tones, at least by those who haven’t had a rubbish experience.

You only need to go into any A&E department for the proof. It will probably be a madhouse with people prepared to wait two hours, four hours, six hours... This is despite officialdom encouraging folk to consider other avenues first for less serious ailments, like going to their GP. Instead they vote with their feet and still go to A&E in large numbers, because getting treatment there and then, even with a hefty wait, is what they want.

Aggravating factors contributing to overwhelming demand are the indomitable British bulldog spirit – and the British love of a bargain.

There’s that misquote from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

In Britain, it is a case of: “If you make it free, they will come running.” Free treatment, even for rich toffs, is a central part of the ideology of Britain’s health service. It is the bargain of the century.

Hands up, I’m an NHS botherer myself. Having a dodgy ticker, I have to ring for repeat prescriptions, as I am of the generation who likes to talk to actual people.

“I’m sorry, our queue has reached maximum capacity, please try later,” is the recorded message. When I finally get past this stage, it says: “You are number 56 in the queue, please hold,” and then repeatedly plays a jingle which must have made the composer a millionaire in performance fees.

I do hold because I’m British and not put off by queues.

The amazing resilience and determination of British patients means there is no let-up in the pressure on the NHS. However bad and tardy the service, we Brits will put up with it if we think we’re not paying, although of course we are paying.

At Prime Minister’s Questions there was the usual rowdy knockabout about waiting times, but when Sir Keir Starmer talked about a real person and a real experience, that of 26-year-old cancer patient Stephanie of Plymouth, all fell silent. Stephanie collapsed and waited so long for an ambulance that she died. In other words, the NHS is in such dire straits that it is culpable in the deaths of people who would otherwise have lived.

What are the politicians going to do? Ordinary Britons are dying to find out. Literally, unfortunately.


Meanwhile, yet more evidence lending weight to my hobby horse that economic forecasts are so consistently proven wrong that it is a wonder that they are taken seriously in the first place. At the very least, in reporting them news organisations could add one of those health warnings. You know, “such forecasts have often been wrong in the past”, that sort of thing.

The UK economy “unexpectedly” grew in November. Over Christmas, flagship stores posted “better than expected” sales. Some economists are now saying our economy will perform “better than expected” in 2023. Oh dear.


Lastly, St Andrew’s Church at Shifnal was packed on Thursday for the funeral of my erstwhile colleague Shirley Tart. She was a local journalism legend, which is of course how I knew her, but as the turnout demonstrated, she was so much more besides.

Farewell, Shirley Tart, MBE, DL.