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The watchdog that did not bark


In the short story, ‘Silver Blaze’, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’. Holmes was investigating a crime, to which the only witness was a dog. The ‘curious’ thing was that the dog did not bark as the crime took place. The absence of a reaction to events was part of the way in which Holmes solved the crime.

As well as a crime writer, Conan Doyle was also a doctor. Had he lived now, I’m sure he would have wanted to write about the ‘curious incident’ of the coverage of the Government’s NHS reforms.

Having spent the best part of the last month on a big boat in a calm sea, I was able to relax and ponder about what is happening to the NHS. I managed to keep my profession secret for almost all of the time on my cruise, but eventually I had to give a straight answer to a straight question. When I was asked ‘what job do you do?’, I had to tell my fellow travellers that I was a full-time GP.

When you admit to your job, then you are likely to be regaled with stories about other peoples’ experience of the system that I work in (and remain proud of). So I was told about all my fellow travellers’ experiences with their GPs. I was expecting to hear a litany of complaints, and was delighted to be told, time and again, about how fantastic people’s GPs were. This was especially good, as those who tend to go on cruises are often those with sub-optimal health.

Other cruisers were appalled when I told them about the way general practice had been dealt with over the last 10 years, and the likely impact of the new health act on the NHS. They had absolutely no idea about how this new act was going to have affect them. I did try to be factual, and describe what had happened, and then I was asked what could ensue, I told them my view.

‘Why were we completely unaware of this?,’ I was asked.  My fellow cruisers expected to read about all the problems in their papers, and hear about it on the BBC. But the BBC was virtually silent on the full implications of the health act. Often it relegated a momentous piece of legislation down the agenda of news, and whenever there were discussions, it sought (in the interests of balance) to have an opposing view to the majority.

It did not seem to matter to the BBC that almost all the royal colleges, and nearly all the other health-based organisations, were vehemently opposed. Marches against the health bill remained unreported, opponents of the Government’s agenda went unheard on mainstream programmes. The BBC apparently deemed that these were not important, or swallowed the Government’s line.

The gist of the Sherlock Holmes story was the dog did not bark, because the felon was known to the dog. Did the NHS bill fail to rouse the watchdog because the perpetrators were too well known to the authorities? In any event, cosy, comfortable and safe, the BBC became the watchdog that did not bark in the night.

The Jobbing Doctor is a GP in a deprived urban area of England

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