Healing the sick can never be a 9-to-5 job



00:07 GMT, 19 December 2012

Panic-stricken messages from a healthcare firm, pleading with doctors to volunteer for evening cover… a 13-year-old with acute shortness of breath, kept waiting seven hours to see a GP…

The mother of a sick child, told that her nearest open surgery is 90 minutes’ drive away… only one advanced nurse practitioner on duty to assess the seriousness of out-of-hours calls from an area covering 3million patients…

God help anyone in Britain today who has the misfortune to fall ill at a time that doesn’t suit the family doctor.

Sworn duty: GPs have been the first to complain about poor service from their stand-ins. But shouldn't they also examine their own consciences (picture posed by model)

Sworn duty: GPs have been the first to complain about poor service from their stand-ins. But shouldn't they also examine their own consciences (picture posed by model)

A newspaper’s investigation of the country’s biggest private provider of after-hours and weekend cover for NHS GPs paints a picture of a Third World service, utterly out of place in prosperous southern England.

But it’s not only Harmoni, the private equity firm taken over last month by Care UK, which must bear the blame for unfilled shifts, life-threatening queues for appointments and harassed doctors missing tell-tale signs of fatal illnesses.

The fault also lies with an incompetent Labour government, whose botched renegotiation of contracts allowed GPs to opt out of evening and weekend work, while raising their pay by 50 per cent in just six years to an average of 110,000.

It was these new contracts that allowed Harmoni to boost its turnover from 3million a year in 2005 to 100million in 2011, as it took responsibility for 8million patients abandoned by their family doctors outside normal working hours.

Naturally, those GPs have been the first to complain about poor service from their stand-ins. But shouldn’t they also examine their own consciences

For centuries, doctors saw it as a sworn duty, and a matter of professional pride, to attend to their patients in all weathers and at any hour of the day or night.

Instead of castigating the firms that fill in for them, shouldn’t they resume their traditional responsibilities

Or, if they won’t do it of their own volition, hasn’t the Government a clear public duty to redraft their contracts so that they have to Now, that really would get the voters’ support, Mr Cameron.

A farce from the start

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At the outset, this paper warned that the commission to examine the case for a British Bill of Rights was a charade.

More than 18 months and the thick end of 1million later, this fatuous body’s two-volume report proves how depressingly right we were.

Stuffed with enthusiasts for European human rights law, the commission was never serious about finding ways to end public exasperation with Strasbourg.

Indeed, it was barred by its very terms of reference, drawn up to please Nick Clegg and the incurably europhile Ken Clarke, from attacking the rights culture that bars us from deporting terrorists and lets foreign judges overrule Parliament.

In short, the only purpose of this farce was to appear to be doing something about a matter of huge public concern, on which the Tories and Lib Dems were never going to agree.

Sure enough, taxpayers have nothing to show for their 700,000 but the spectacle of a bunch of bickering lawyers, reaching no conclusions.

The good news is that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has long made it clear he doesn’t care tuppence about the commission. To him, all that matters is curtailing Strasbourg’s involvement in the UK’s domestic affairs and spelling out that rights must be matched by responsibilities.

As he puts it: ‘The words “I know my rights” have to stop being a defence against unacceptable behaviour.’

The bad news (for everyone except UKIP) is that we’ll have to wait at least until the election for any action.