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How fake news caused this whole NHS mess

In this brave new world of fake news, it’s hard to know who to believe. This week, the British Red Cross labelled the situation in our A&Es a humanitarian crisis. Personally I think people who immediately resort to hyperbole are worse than Hitler, so when Jeremy Hunt pooh-poohed the claim, stating that there are only issues in ‘one or two’ hospitals, I for one was reassured; after all, who would know more about accessing emergency care than a man who spends so much of his time with his pants on fire?

However, NHS middle management has more leaks than a night in with Donald Trump, and we quickly learnt that not only were the problems far more widespread than Mr Hunt had pretended, but that pressure to downplay the situation was coming right from the very top. Apparently trusts have been banned from using the phrase ‘black alert’, as if everything will be OK so long as we use a less threatening colour scheme: ‘Earlier today the hospital was on magnolia alert, but then a couple of patients died on ward seven so we’ve been downgraded to taupe’.

A few smithereens of truth have floated in on the tsunami of spin emanating from the Department of Health, most notably the suggestion from Mr Hunt that many patients who present to A&E shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. Some secondary care colleagues were aghast at this, worried perhaps about sending home the odd aneurysmal zebra within the endless herd of lumbaginous horses. But those of us whose stock-in-trade is sifting through the trivial in search of the serious know he is right. We’ve read the discharge summaries. The question is not whether people attend A&E inappropriately, but why?

Having worked the last few weekends as a GP in my local emergency department, I’ve made it my business to find out, and the same answer keeps coming up: ‘I thought this was the only place that was open. Well, that’s what you read, isn’t it?’ It’s the fake news story that launched a thousand Mail headlines: ‘your GP doesn’t work at the weekend so now you have to go to A&E’, and it’s been repeated so often – again on Newsnight this Wednesday – that it’s become self-fulfilling, as the entire nation seems to have collectively forgotten the existence of the GP out-of-hours service. Well, now that Mr Hunt is on message, perhaps we’ll see an end to ignorant people schlepping their kids over to casualty when they should have seen a GP instead. But I won’t hold my breath. 

Dr Pete Deveson is a GP in Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @PeteDeveson