Last year I made repeated visits to the Whittington Hospital in Archway, north London. An elderly relative in his late eighties was seriously ill there. In his ward, Ken enjoyed banter with staff, many of whom were very warm and kind to him. Yet in the few weeks leading up to his death, Ken was denied the level of care he deserved.
The hospital’s greatest failure was in ensuring that he received proper nutrition. Ken’s body was riddled with cancer and his appetite was failing. Yet even when he wanted to eat, Ken was not able to. With diminished strength, he could not use cutlery properly. Routinely meals would be placed in front of him only to be collected, uneaten, 45 minutes later. Only when family members were present to help feed him would Ken be able to eat as much as he wanted. Among the other problems Ken faced was a callous night nurse who denied repeated requests from the geriatric patients for extra bedding to keep out the cold. A fine Irishman who had voluntarily served in the British Army during the War was repaid with very mediocre care in his final few days.
Appallingly, Ken’s experience is typical of what elderly patients are receiving throughout the country. This week’s Healthcare Commission report found that thousands of older people are being treated without dignity or adequate privacy on hospital wards across England. Inspections at 23 acute hospital trusts found that only five are fully complying with national standards on dignity in care, even though they all claimed to do so.
It shows many patients are at risk of malnutrition, with barely one in six of those who need help with eating and drinking receiving it. Incontinent patients are being forced to wear nappies, and sometimes left for hours in soiled clothing. Years after Government promised to abolish the indignity of mixed-sex wards many still exist, with elderly male and female patients forced to share toilets and washing facilities. Trusts ordered to make improvements include seven of the Government's flagship foundation hospitals.
In recent weeks I have been encouraged as the nation’s broken covenant with our armed forces has been increasingly recognised. This is a vital pre-cursor for action to tackle it. However the neglect of the elderly in our hospitals is one symptom of an even more serious broken covenant between the generations. At the next general election, I hope our party puts providing dignified hospital care for the elderly at the heart of our campaigning on the NHS. And each of us must heed the Healthcare Commission’s appeal to blow the whistle whenever we have concerns about the treatment of vulnerable older people.
Congratulations to Boris Johnson who, as expected, has won the primary to be adopted as Conservative candidate for London Mayor by a huge margin.
I must confess I never got round to voting. With the contest a foregone conclusion, my token involvement has been limited to joining the Backing Boris group on Facebook. There has been a lot of carping about the low turnout for the open primary. However we should be proud to be in the party pioneering new forms of voter engagement and grassroots democracy. In a closer contest the primary system will come into its own.
Of the four short-listed candidates, only Boris could ever depose King Newt. Bookmakers’ odds show that Boris is snapping at Ken’s heels. Aided by higher turnout in the suburbs and a favourable electoral system, Boris has every chance to give Labour a bloody nose in the capital. However, Boris will have to work like a Trojan to win. His considerable wit, charm and force of personality will not be enough. Several people in different fields who have heard Boris speak have expressed disappointment to me at his lack of preparedness.
As well as articulating an agenda for the whole city, Boris will also have to master and respond to local issues in 33 boroughs - an enormous task. However freed to focus full-time on his campaign between now and next May, Boris can certainly do it. For the sake of London, let each of us do all we can to help ensure he does.