The Blog

The NHS Runs On Its People: Beat Them Down And You Will Have Nothing Left

Hunt is setting himself against the most essential element of our health organisation: its people. They are on the edge, and they deserve nothing but respect.

Last week, I took my boyfriend to A&E. After spending six hours there, and ten more on a second visit a day later, we ended up in a ward. My fear for his health, and relief that he was being looked after, mixed with exhaustion and irritation at the long waiting times.

A nurse, probably younger than me, chatted to us while she administered a final antibiotic drip for my boyfriend.

They always got the rowdy patients on this ward, she said. It essentially held overspill from A&E. She spent her time with drunks, people who had been in fights, people who resisted treatment, criminals escorted by the police. She had been kicked and punched the night before she met us, and she had gone home and cried.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt with a hospital patient

She generally kept it together at work, but the day before she'd also lost her composure and shouted at a man who repeatedly tried to smoke in the ward. She'd only been doing this job six weeks, she said.

The amazing thing about her story was that she wasn't complaining. She wasn't even looking for sympathy. She simply told us, cheerfully, calmly, as if it was all part of the job.

After 10 hours of being simultaneously wracked with worry and very, very bored, I wanted to hug her. I wanted to sob into her uniform, tell her how brave she was, how there was nothing more important to me in the world right now than what she was doing setting up this drip. How overwhelmed I was that she took on this role with such grace.

I didn't, of course. All I could manage was a small "you do a great job". I don't even remember her name.

Our three trips to hospital were far from perfect: we had to wait hours to see a consultant, and hours for a pharmacist to prescribe the medicine my boyfriend needed, because it was the weekend. We were shepherded between endless departments where little seemed to happen to us, and at one point a ward bed wasn't ready in time.

But every person we met was reassuring enough to quite literally trust with your life.

There was another nurse who made it into a joke when she was unable to get the right coloured wristband for my boyfriend, and chuckled as she explained to other staff that despite that red tag around his wrist, he actually didn't have any allergies.

There was Wilson, who took my boyfriend's blood. He let us into his secret strategy of asking patients and their visitors "How related are you?" to avoid assuming someone's wife was their mother, or their brother was their husband.

There was the lady washing up in a hospital kitchen, who scavenged for a sandwich and a yoghurt, as well as bringing us cakes and tea, even when we'd been told we had arrived at the ward too late for food.

Underneath, like me, these people may have wanted to scream, or cry, or just go home and sleep. But, outwardly, everyone was unflappable.

The British Medical Association has accused health secretary Jeremy Hunt of a "wholesale attack" on medical staff, over his plans to impose new contracts for junior doctors, even if they refuse.

Many face losing between 15% and 40% of their earnings and being forced to lose higher pay for antisocial hours.

And nurses are having a terrible time. Many feel undervalued, a third want to quit and 82% have worked when they aren't well enough to do so, a survey found yesterday.

More than half (59%) feel they are too busy to provide the level of care they would like to, and a third experience bullying at work.

I support the attempt to try to stop around 6,000 people dying every year because of low weekend staffing. I'm sure all doctors do too. But it's not their fault, and Hunt is going about it the wrong way.

By calling for the doctor's union to "get real", and saying that "if we can't negotiate, we are ready to impose a new contract", Hunt is setting himself against the most essential element of our health organisation: its people.

They are on the edge, and they deserve nothing but respect.

I've never met a lazy doctor. In fact I don't meet the ones I know very often - they're always working. But when I do see them they stand out as intelligent, kind, and incredibly resilient people, who are often making sacrifices in their own relationships to succeed in their jobs.

As the people I met at Kings College Hospital reminded me, the NHS is run on an extraordinary amount of goodwill - take that away and you risk losing everything.