No sacred cows

My night in A&E left me worried about the NHS’s coronavirus response

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

I wish I shared the Prime Minister’s confidence about the ability of the NHS to cope with coronavirus. ‘I have no doubt that with the help of the NHS and its incomparable staff, this country will get through it – and beat it,’ he said on Sunday. Not if my experience in A&E last week is anything to go by.

I wasn’t keen to visit A&E in the midst of the current crisis, obviously, and had it been my own health I was worried about I would have stayed in bed. But it was Sasha’s, my 16-year-old daughter. She was pushed down some stairs at a party (not deliberately) and one of her fake fingernails got bent back, ripping her actual nail off its nail bed. She was complaining about the pain and it looked infected so I called 111 and asked what to do. Answer: take her to A&E. So off we went to Chelsea and Westminster.

We arrived at about 8.30 p.m. on a Sunday and the waiting area was quite crowded so Sasha and I reconciled ourselves to a long stay. At about 10 p.m. a Chinese-looking man walked in, approached the receptionist and said: ‘I think I’ve got coronavirus.’ He said this quite loudly, so everyone in the room could hear, and I exchanged a nervous glance with a middle-aged woman opposite. ‘What makes you think that?’ asked the sceptical receptionist. ‘Have you been in any of the following countries in the past two weeks?’ He then rattled off a list of ‘hot zones’ and, sure enough, this man had been in one of them two days earlier. He was also suffering from a bad cold, judging from how often he sneezed. The receptionist told him to leave, call 111 and follow the advice.

The man left, having spent no more than five minutes in the waiting area, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Then, about half an hour later, he reappeared, this time wearing a mask. Why the hell had he come back? Surely that couldn’t have been the advice he’d been given?

‘At least he’s wearing a mask,’ I thought, at which point his mobile rang and he took the mask off and started jabbering into the receiver. As the conversation became more animated, he began to pace up and down. He then sat down opposite the water cooler, still talking on the phone, with his head no more than three feet from the ‘clean’ plastic cups.


The reaction of the man sitting next to him was wonderfully British. Rather than get up straight away and flee to the other side of the room, he started patting his pockets and shaking his head, as if he’d forgotten some vital document in his car. He then got up, left the waiting area entirely, only to reappear five minutes later and take a seat as far away from Coronavirus Man as possible.

The middle-aged woman sitting opposite me slowly pulled her jumper up so it covered her nose and mouth, but she made a pretence of shivering ostentatiously before doing so, as if her only motive was to keep warm. It goes without saying that the waiting room was absolutely sweltering. My daughter, who was possibly the only person there oblivious to the unfolding drama — because she was on Snapchat — then asked me to get her a glass of water.

‘Er, I don’t think that’s a good idea, darling,’ I whispered. ‘Why not?’ she said. ‘I’m really thirsty.’ ‘Just trust me, OK?’ The woman opposite stifled a laugh beneath her jumper.

When Sasha and I were eventually seen at about midnight, I alerted the doctor to the fact that there was a man wandering around the waiting room who might have coronavirus.

‘Oh really,’ he said, looking at me with disdain. ‘And what makes you think he has Covid-19? Is it because he’s of Asian ancestry?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘It’s because he went up to the receptionist and said “I think I’ve got coronavirus.” ’

At this point the doctor looked a little alarmed and disappeared to investigate. He returned a few minutes later and told me there was nothing to worry about. ‘That man does not have Covid-19,’ he declared.

I n-odded politely, but inside I was thinking: ‘Tell at a glance, can you? That’s some pretty impressive diagnostic skills you’ve got there. You should be working for the World Health Organisation.’

I’m a big fan of Chelsea and Westminster, which saved my son Ludo’s life when he was a newborn, and I’ve raised money for the hospital in the past. But I’m not convinced the NHS is properly prepared for the looming emergency.
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Toby Young is associate editor of  The Spectator.

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