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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.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.