Show Hide image

Open wide. Say “argh”

The trials and tribulations of an emergency swine flu appointment

Although I'd mocked the national swine flu hype, it seemed sensible, when a friend was diagnosed a few days ago and I woke up with a sore throat and slight temperature, to check if I had it. First stop: the freshly launched online National Pandemic Flu service. After a series of slightly unsettling questions, apparently designed to check whether I am already dead ("Does your skin feel icy cold and wet to touch?"), I am asked if I have a fever, as well as two or more symptoms from a generalised list. I click yes, feeling fraudulent, as I suspect that my tickling throat doesn't really count.

The next set of questions focuses on more severe indicators, some of them tending towards the weird ("Does the patient appear terrified?").  answer no to all of them. Surprisingly, however, the service concludes that I need Tamiflu, supplying me with an authorisation number and a stern warning that "this is the only course of antiviral treatment which will be authorised for that patient". It tells me to get my "flu friend" to take the number to a dystopian-sounding Antiviral Collection Point. I don't have a flu friend, I think, forlornly. Increasingly convinced that I don't have swine flu either, I decide not to use up my one chance at treatment.

When I find that I no longer have a temperature, I call the NHS helpline, which, it transpires, is a service where staff read out exactly the same questions as I have just answered online. Greg, who answers the phone, asks if I have a temperature. I admit I don't. "You don't have flu then," he says firmly. I explain the situation, and that I'm trying to find out if I'm infectious. "I don't know," he says, sounding panicked. "That isn't on the flow chart."

I call my GP and go in to wait for an emergency appointment. At the words "swine flu", the receptionist pulls on a mask. "We're supposed to keep you in isolation," she says accusingly, leading me into a small, empty treatment room. After a four-hour wait in my sad little cell, I nervously step out to the main reception area to ask if I'm allowed to go and get lunch. I'll wear a mask, I offer, desperately.

“I'm not sure that's a good idea," she says. "You're supposed to be quarantined." As I fight back the urge to tell her that although I may be carrying a pandemic virus, I do still have basic human rights, she softens and says she'll ask the doctor, who agrees to see me. The doctor is wearing a mask, too. To my relief, he actually listens as I tell him I've been in close contact with someone with swine flu and I'm just checking what I should do, without interrupting to shriek mechanically: "BUT DO YOU HAVE A HIGH TEMPERATURE?"

He takes a swab from my mouth and nose, tells me the results will be back in seven days, and recommends that I rest at home until then. I tell him I'd rather not put my life on hold, because I don't feel ill. "Well," he says conspiratorially, "it sounds to me like you probably don't have it." And while "probably" isn't exactly what you want to hear from a medical professional, I decide to take that and run with it.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.