Nigel Hawkes: Andrew Lansley on your bedside TV

Nigel Hawkes We know that many people occupying hospital beds ought not to be there, either because their earlier care has failed to keep them out or because they can’t be discharged for lack of anywhere to go. But is it quite fair to hasten their departure by subjecting them to all-day Andrew Lansley on their bedside TV?

The Independent reports that a message from the health secretary appears on a continuous loop on sets provided under contract by Hospedia unless and until patients register with the system. They can then choose to watch regular TV (for £5 a day, which includes email and phone service) or turn it off.

Some wards, say patients interviewed by the paper, look like the showroom at Dixons or Comet, with rows of sets all showing Mr Lansley at the same time. His message is one of hope and reassurance. “Hello, I’m Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary,” he says. “I just want to take a few moments to say that your care while you’re here in hospital really matters to me.

“I hope it’s as good quality as we can possibly make it and I do hope you’ll join me in thanking all the staff who are looking after you while you’re here.”

The message is largely unexceptionable, though I’d prefer to decide for myself who to thank and how. But it’s dreadful PR. What makes anybody think that patients want this kind of thing? Challenged on Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Lansley offered a limp defence. His predecessor Andy Burnham, he claimed, had provided a similar message. ‘Nuff said.

As it happens, I spent last Friday morning in the day-surgery unit of a hospital I won’t name. I had gone prepared, with a book of such unimaginable length that it would have kept me occupied for days, if necessary – Alan Bullock’s magisterial Hitler and Stalin – Parallel Lives, which runs to 1,100-odd pages. That may seem an odd choice but it’s a gripping book and compared with the fate of those who crossed either of these tyrants, a few hours in the bosom of the NHS would, I surmised, seem like a walk in the park.

Mr Lansley was not on the telly but You’ve Been Scammed was, a story of rueful victims easily duped by not-very-sophisticated con men. It was followed by Home under the Hammer – houses being sold by auction, heavens! – and Filthy Rotten Scoundrels, which dealt with London fly-tippers. The TV muttered away unwatched, like an elderly relative dominating the hearth. Nobody took any notice if it, so far as I could see. I struggled to follow Lord Bullock’s explanation of Hitler’s rise to power while the con men, the auctioneers and the fly-tippers performed their obbligato in the background.

Daytime TV is a foreign country, as L.P.Hartley might have said.  Those of us who never watch it don’t realise they do things differently there. And it’s true that while waiting for an operation, you need some kind of diversion. The removal of cataracts is routine, but not to the patient. He has only one or two experiences of it in a lifetime – not routine at all.

Would I have been happier to have had Mr Lansley on a loop? On the positive side, the constant repetition of his message would surely have stirred one of my fellow patients to turn him off. But silence might have been more oppressive even than BBC1. It’s a hard call. But I was jolly glad it wasn’t on in the operating theatre.

Nigel Hawkes is a journalist and director of the pressure group Straight Statistics.