Putting snobbery on hold

The ban on mobile phones in hospitals had nothing to do with safety. It was born of a sniffish disdain for the oiks who use them.

James Harkin

Topics Politics

The UK Department of Health issued guidance this week stating that mobile phones can now be used in hospitals.

Speaking of the decision, health minister Ben Bradshaw said: ‘Mobile phones are commonplace in everyday life these days.’ His earth-shattering revelations didn’t stop there: ‘People have told us that they’d like to be able to use their phones in hospital more to keep in touch.’

All of which raises a rather awkward question: given that neither patients’ desire to ‘keep in touch’ with friends and family, nor the lack of a technical justification for the ban, is anything new, why has it taken so long for the DoH to allow people to use mobiles in hospitals?

I write as one who has experienced the inconvenience of the ban at first hand.

There is no more anyone needs to know about the strange hybrid of medieval and futuristic that is the British government’s technology policy than that which can be gleaned while standing in the entrance of a major NHS hospital, wearing only a flimsy knee-length gown and whispering a snatched conversation with a friend on a mobile phone.

This was my plight when, nearly two years ago, I was wheeled into St Thomas’s hospital in London with acute appendicitis, and was informed that I wasn’t allowed to use my mobile phone inside because of ‘health and safety’ considerations. The health and safety considerations of me freezing my arse off were not discussed.

In March 2007 then UK health minister Andy Burnham admitted that there was ‘no reason’ for a ban on mobiles in hospitals. So why did the ban stay in place? The answer is a mixture of money and modern manners. In many cases, hospitals – which are responsible for setting their own policy on mobile phone usage – are locked into contracts with commercial providers of bedside phone services which charge patients up to 50 pence a minute. In its evidence to the House of Commons Health Committee in 2006, Ofcom suggested that some hospitals were still clinging to the ban because they needed the money.

The ban on mobiles, however, wasn’t just about money. When they are not being accused of frying our brains, mobiles are blamed for fomenting everything from a crime wave to a growth in teenage illiteracy. When those brickbats crumble, our public institutions rely on snobbery. Mobile phones, they sigh, are a nuisance favoured by loud-mouthed oiks. That is why a sizeable minority of pubs, restaurants and leisure centres have banned them.

A more civilised approach to matters of nuisance, annoyance and etiquette would be to let us sort them out between ourselves. Allowing mobile phones in hospital wards is the humanitarian thing to do, as it enables patients to keep in touch seamlessly with their loved ones in times of distress. Doctors and pharmacists can benefit, too, just as taxi drivers already find mobile phones much more useful than the antiquated walkie-talkies which connect them back to base.

It was about time the Department of Health got rid of this hang-up; the mobile phone ban was the real nuisance.

James Harkin is Director of Talks at the ICA. His most recent book, Big Ideas: The Essential Guide to the Latest Thinking, is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) This is an edited version of an article first published in the Guardian.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at the health panics around mobile phones. Nathalie Rothschild measured the mobile footprint and asked who’s afraid of iPhones. Bill Durodié examined the cultural underpinnings of the mobile phone panic. Elsewhere, Pete Smith looked behind the loutish headlines about British holiday makers. Dolan Cummings raised a glass to public spiritedness. He also argued that freedom should not be for sale. Or read more at spiked issue liberties.

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

Topics Politics


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