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Bacon vacations are a swine

Phil is in a huff and a puff about the swine flu hotline and all the ‘hog holidays’ it has brought.

Phil is in a huff and a puff about the swine flu hotline and all the ‘hog holidays' it has brought.

My patient sounds congested and miserable. ‘So do you think it could be swine flu, doc?'

‘It's possible. It's hard to be sure over the phone. I'm pretty certain it's a virus.'

‘Do you think I should go to work?'

‘I'm not sure that would be fair to your colleagues. Maybe you should take the rest of the week off.'

‘Yeah, but I can't, can I? I already took my bacon vacation last month.'

The ‘bacon vacation' – also known as the ‘hog holiday' – is a recent phenomenon. Indeed, you can date its origin quite accurately... to about half an hour after the Government's influenza hotline was introduced.

I'm well aware that dealing with global pandemics is not as straightforward as organising a piss-up in a brewery. So it is depressing to find that our Government, which cannot even manage the latter, now thinks the answer to the former is the influenza hotline, with its moronic, unqualified, minimum-wage phone-jockeys. The results are predictable.

You phone a free number. You speak to some slack-jawed teenager who trails a damp finger down a laminated flow chart while drawlingly asking you a number of questions about your symptoms. If you get it right, you get a prescription and a week off – no sick note, no questions asked (or at least, no questions accurately answered). Then consult Ceefax for a last-minute holiday deal, and you're away. Tell some lies and win a prize. A porker for Majorca.

In that classic manner that is unique to soulless British bureaucracy, as well as failing to do what it's designed to do, it also adds an extra layer of cynicism to the souls of everyone involved. With only a little mental rearranging, the concept of the hog holiday has become not an unexpected bonus but a right, something to be planned for. Everyone else is having it, so why shouldn't I?

In Sunderland, if you don't work for Nissan, you work in a call centre. Call centres are a big thing in Sunderland. There is some science behind this. Apparently, it is slightly less distressing to be told your electricity is going to be cut off if it comes from a lass with a warm, soothing Wearside brogue.

Strangely, the captive workforce don't love the call centres as much as they should. Maybe it's the way their pay is docked if they don't sell their target amount of useless insurance, or the way they are timed when they go to the toilet. Who can say?

One of my call centre-employed patients, who has an unusual – that is to say, a measurable – amount of work ethic, was disgusted with what happened at her workplace. There were 19 of them in the office on Monday morning. A snivelling, sneezy girl went up to the supervisor and said she felt ill, and that her husband had been given Tamiflu by the hotline. The supervisor sent her home.

Within four hours, six other employees shyly admitted to flu symptoms and were sent home too. On Tuesday, only seven people turned up at work.

At this rate, every worker in Sunderland will have had a bacon vacation by the end of the year, and yet hardly any of them will have actually had swine flu. God help us if we ever actually get a genuine epidemic.

Dr Phil Peverley is a GP in Sunderland

Phil Peverley

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