I checked my mobile phone and discovered I called the same number 70 times in four days. If anyone was handed my phone to analyse it all, what would they make of it? After wading through my obsessions with politics and football websites, that is, and endless calls to Indian and Chinese takeaways.
But I knew something was seriously wrong with the NHS Grampian flu vaccination helpline because its phones were jammed all day long. On the first day alone I called 42 times, with no joy. It was a bit obsessive, but I had invested so much time I felt I must keep going.
The law of the jungle kicks in because everyone is doing it and you feel it’s life or death. Maybe it is. My rate of calls began to tail off over the next three days as I lost the will to live. I had to thank the P&J for finding out that the NHS helpline for anxious and vulnerable people had suffered a nervous breakdown.
Queues of old people were also being turned away from makeshift vaccination centres because stocks had run out. For others, appointment letters were arriving after the date or time of the actual appointment. If West End theatres were not locked in pandemic paralysis, this kind of farce could get a good stage run.
I know it was not the same for everyone – lots of people will say how quick and efficient it was for them. That’s how it should perform. What should really concern any major organisation is why things go wrong before they pat themselves on the back. NHS Grampian seems to be doing its best to put things right.
But mental anguish caused by such a trusted organisation fraying at the edges shattered the confidence of vulnerable people, and I shared their frustration first hand. So I sought solace in an unusual way.
I started calling the helpline after hours when it was closed, because I knew I would get an answer. Please bear with me as there is method in my madness. The first thing I heard was the delicious purr of the phone actually ringing out instead of an instant, soul-destroying “line busy” tone. But one thing was guaranteed if I called when no one was there – I would actually get through.
Okay, there was no real person and only a robotic recorded message telling me it was shut, but it was oddly reassuring and comforting in a weird way to hear a friendly voice. The voice recording belonged to a nice-sounding chap with a caring voice, just like a GP. He advised me to ring back in the morning when the centre reopened for calls – and I actually believed him.
I called this disembodied gentleman two more times because I enjoyed our one-way conversations, and to double-check the flu line still existed if only in name. This embarrassing roll-out by the Scottish Government (because that is where the buck stops, surely?) has been rightly described as a “national scandal”.
What must viewers think when they see a public service message on TV every day from the Scottish Government/NHS? The one which tells us darkly that “flu is serious” and we must get vaccinated when the call comes. Maybe people were throwing their unanswered phones at the telly after this carry on in the north-east.
Apart from vague references to “logistical problems” and profuse apologies, real detail about what went wrong was as hard to come by as a flu vaccine. Why is it that public bodies in Scotland operate a rather opaque form of transparency?
The public is entitled to a detailed explanation of what went wrong, rather than being fobbed off.
If only GPs still organised vaccinations in the north-east, many would say.
There was talk of pharmacists stepping in to help ease the crisis, so I visited one in Aberdeen to ask about it. At last, human contact was restored and the pharmacist gave me some comforting advice.
I explained my wife and I were in one of the priority groups, but nothing had arrived even although NHS Grampian assured us online that appointment letters were being sent out weeks ago.
The pharmacist confided she had heard GPs were being called back to support NHS Grampian, which now runs the vaccinations, and we might hear something in days.
It was refreshing to have a health professional give face-to-face support. Apparently, plenty of desperate flu-line “refugees” had been beating a path to the pharmacy door already. NHS Grampian, meanwhile, suffered the ignominy of being forced to change its flu line number.
And then told people to avoid calling it if possible. It’s like something out of Catch-22. Now they were only taking calls from a backlog of people forced to rearrange flu vaccinations as a result of this PR disaster.
As I write, a group of four old people sat down at the next table in a cafe and guess what they were talking about? Yes – vaccination vacillation and all that.
While the phones might have sounded permanently off the hook, the Scottish Government must not be let off the hook when it comes to finding out what went wrong at every stage in the process.
Otherwise, this kind of thing will keep happening and we shall need a vaccination against public service chaos at this rate.