What happened when Cameron booked into Newcastle hospital?
Blogger tells how journalists were kept away from angry encounters between PM and hospital staff
HAS DAVID CAMERON been reduced to North Korean levels of censorship and deception in his desperate attempt to keep his government's unpopular health reforms on track?
That's the charge the prime minister faces after two separate reports – one from the mainstream media, one from the blogosphere - surfaced over the weekend.
First, the mainstream story. Cameron is to host a meeting at Number 10 this afternoon with a range of national healthcare organisations to discuss the controversial Health and Social Care Bill.
However, at least three of the bodies one would expect to be there - the British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of General Practitioners - have not been invited, apparently because of their vehement opposition to the reforms. How can the meeting be meaningful without their presence, critics are asking?
Second, the blogged report. This is the 'inside story' of David Cameron's flying visit to the Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary last Wednesday where it is claimed by Dr Eion Clarke on his Green Benches blog that the PM received a hostile reception from hospital staff.
The press had been alerted on Tuesday to a high-profile visit to the North East for the launch of Cameron's new crackdown on binge drinking – but for security reasons, no one was told precisely which hospital he would be going to. Neither, according to Dr Clarke, were staff at the Newcastle hospital alerted.
When the PM arrived on Wednesday, journalists were kept in a waiting room while Cameron went off to meet the staff. Which is where the visit began to go seriously wrong, according to Dr Clarke's eye-witnesses.
Four staff members "who have made their stories known privately" but who "are reluctant to come forward because they fear for their jobs" told Dr Clarke that the Prime Minister got a "bad reception". This is backed up by witness accounts from at least one hospital visitor as well as the brother of a patient.
Dr Clarke writes: "Much of the staff ignored him [Cameron] for his entire visit and he had to be closely guarded by police security." A nurse was overheard saying to Cameron: "I am vehemently opposed to reforms - they're bad for patients and bad for care." Cameron reportedly ignored the nurse and refused to reply to her.
One staff member had to be "led away" after giving the PM "a verbal volley". Clarke writes: "I am told that that staff member is facing disciplinary action."
Clarke's blog claims that a health campaigner contacted an unnamed source at North East Health who said: "I heard it went badly, that is all I can say."
According to the Newcastle Chronicle, the Newcastle NHS Trust has stated: "We are not aware of there having been any issues between members of our staff and the Prime Minister, or his entourage, during his visit."
However, the BBC footage broadcast that day tends to support Clarke's account in that it shows Cameron talking directly to the camera with no interaction between the PM and hospital staff or patients of the kind one would expect during a prime ministerial tour.
Dr Clarke teaches at Queen's University, Belfast. He is a Labour Party member and an opponent of the NHS reforms. The weakness of his account is the suggestion that staff should have been forewarned of the prime minister's visit. For security reasons, this would very rarely happen, according to The Week's Westminster insider, the Mole. Hospital visits are notoriously difficult to control, because of the comings and goings of bedside visitors and the necessary circulation of patients.
As for the journalists being kept in a waiting room, Cameron was, of course, trying to avoid a Sharron Storer moment – that infamous incident of 2001 when Tony Blair, visiting the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, was ambushed by the angry sister of a patient being treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Storer was furious because her brother had had to spend the night in casualty because not a single bed could be found in the bone marrow transplant unit. Blair was unable to get a word in edgeways. It was a PR disaster that few politicians or their spin-doctors can ever forget.
According to the Mole, if Cameron is now having to go to such lengths to avoid a similar encounter – whether with a patient's relative or, just as likely, a member of staff – it is further proof that the PM has got himself into a terrible mess by backing Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's unwanted reforms.
How long, asks the Mole, before Cameron has to travel the country in a sealed train, its windows blacked out to protect him from the angry populace? ·