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‘Doctors don’t take sick leave’

I’m writing this from my sick bed. I’m not exactly at Death’s door, but if you’d asked me last night I’d have pictured myself somewhere on his front lawn, just by the ornamental bird bath and demonic gnomes brandishing sickles. That’s viruses for you. They mess with your mind.

And I’d almost made it through the entire cold and flu season unscathed, even in the absence of an effective vaccine. How? Because for a few glorious weeks either side of the New Year we piloted a new system of triage: no one got to cross the threshold into the inner sanctum without talking to a doctor first.

Some mornings, this meant that nobody – and I mean nobody – actually needed to see me.

Vaccine, schmaccine. My impenetrable Cone of Solitude had a 100% success rate in protecting this everyday GP from everyday respiratory infections. Now I’m stuck at home on my day off, sweating something out and mainlining NSAIDs, honey, lemon and bourbon.

‘You’ve had a cough and a snotty nose for three whole days? Your throat’s been really sore since Monday? Aw, bless. I’m sure you’re aware that the best advice in that situation is to stay at home to avoid spreading the infection to others. You can get all the self-care advice you need from the NHS website and send someone out to Tesco to blag you some own brand ibuprofen.’

Bliss, perfect bliss.

HCAs took routine blood pressures. Routine blood tests were ordered and results discussed over the phone. Repeat prescriptions were updated from the comfort of the patient’s home or office.

It got to the point where I’d invite some in just for a chat to pass the time. But I’d make damned sure they weren’t ill before I did. Housing problem? Central heating on the blink? Line manager being mean to you? Come on down.

But for some reason, the pilot didn’t go down well with the punters who cling on to the top of the symptom iceberg like their lives depend on it. The very idea that they might not have instant access to their GP for all manner of trivia went down like bacon at a bar mitzvah.

They did what they always do. They complained. My, how they complained. And, being GPs, we did what we always do. At the first sight of green ink, we caved in.

So now, as we’ve chickened out and reverted to our old way of doing things, the waiting room is filled to capacity with sniffly children who despite appearing to be breathing normally, be beautifully hydrated and in no need of a quick dousing from our plentiful supply of fire extinguishers, are ‘fighting for breath’, ‘keeping nuffink down’ and ‘literally burning up’.

They are accompanied by mums and dads who need nothing more than a hefty dose of parentcetamol, preferably administered in the form of a large suppository. One of them, and I wish I knew who, coughed in my face just long enough to pass their rhinovirus on to me. You have to get your kid to cough right in the GP’s face to get antibiotics, everybody knows that. Cough and cough and cough, preferably till they puke. 

As we all know, Doctors Don’t Take Sick Leave, even when we really should. We’re not nurses. But the session I worked yesterday afternoon, when any sane person would’ve been on the sofa watching reruns of Escape to Jeremy Kyle’s Antiques Roadtrip, is/was a bit of a blur.

I’m pretty sure it involved people with coughs and colds. I don’t recall doing much for any of them.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. You can follow him on Twitter @DocCopperfield.