Can you trust NHS Direct?

Following a strange incident involving toddlers, Tixylix and a visit from the authorities, one family has its doubts.

Emily Hill

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Topics Politics

In Britain it has become fashionable – sometimes irritatingly so – to maintain a distrust of what the authorities know about you.

As Oyster cards, used on trains and buses, monitor our movements across the capital, credit cards and store loyalty cards record financial transactions, CCTV tracks the use of public space, and ASBOs take stock of the ‘underclass’, the wealth of information flooding into unknown databases means that many are worried that we live in ‘a Big Brother society’. Some even seem slightly paranoid about it all.

Is this desire on the part of the authorities to monitor our movements, spending habits and general behaviour now moving into the home, too? Most of us would not think twice about phoning a medical helpline like NHS Direct for advice, if we were to find ourselves in the middle of a medical emergency. NHS Direct is the helpline set up by the National Health Service to answer queries about ailments or minor accidents that might not need to be treated in a hospital. But could NHS Direct also be possessed of the ‘spying’ instinct that seems rife in other government bodies and institutions today?

Last month, Richard’s three-year-old daughter was playing with her cousin in the family home. Somehow the two toddlers managed to climb up to a cupboard, which contained a bottle of the sweet-tasting cough medicine for kids, Tixylix. Being children, they quite quickly removed the child-proof cap and necked the entire bottle between them. Very pleased with themselves, they returned to where the adults were gathered and made a declaration about what they had done.

Richard’s girlfriend, Sue, flew into a panic. She was unsure how strong Tixylix is as a medicine. Richard phoned NHS Direct for advice, hoping that ‘they could contact the poisons unit and find out what the situation was’, he says. Sue phoned her daughter’s General Practitioner (GP). Both NHS Direct and the family doctor told the worried parents that it probably was not a very serious incident, but advised them to go to a nearby Accident and Emergency unit to be on the safe side.

At A&E, it all became a bit of a joke, as it clearly transpired that there was nothing wrong with the toddlers. They danced around the waiting room, entertaining the elderly, infirm and injured people waiting to see a doctor or nurse. The A&E staff, Richard recalls, thought it was all rather funny; there was a relaxed, jokey atmosphere between Richard and Sue and the doctor who checked the toddlers and confirmed they were okay. At no point did anyone in the hospital suggest ‘oh you’re terrible parents for letting the children get hold of this stuff’, says Richard. Everyone seemed to recognise it was an accident, the sort of thing mischievous little things who remember liking the taste of Tixylix will occasionally do.

So imagine Richard and Sue’s surprise when, a few days after this incident, a member of some social services body knocked on their door and questioned Sue about the incident. They wanted to know ‘where medicines were kept, and whether they are secure’. They didn’t ask to be let in so that they could poke around, but Sue did feel somewhat patronised by their questioning, and also like an object of suspicion.

Richard thinks it is unlikely that the hospital reported the incident to social services, seeing as the doctors and nurses there treated it as quite trivial; and he hopes that the family GP would have discussed any child welfare concerns with him and Sue before contacting the authorities. So he has come to the conclusion that the ‘tip off’ to social services may have come from NHS Direct.

‘When we phoned them initially, NHS Direct asked me three or four times what my name was and where I lived and what relation the children were to me, and I found it a bit infuriating’, he says – especially since the phoneline could not give him the information he needed about the toxicity of Tixylix.

‘With NHS Direct, you can’t just ask the question you want to ask, you have to go through whatever the computer is telling the operator to ask you. The whole conversation was so protocol-driven that I can just imagine that, once they’d asked all the questions, the next thing that would come up on the operator’s screen might be something like, “Now notify the health sector”.’

Richard can’t be certain that NHS Direct ‘grassed us up’. But he and Sue are furious that someone in the health authorities seems to have notified social services following an everyday accident that had no serious consequences. In an age of suspicion about families, it seems that even kids drinking too much Tixylix is reason for a visit from the powers-that-be. If this kind of thing continues to happen, will parents stop trusting the medical authorities when their child has an accident?

All names have been changed.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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