Health bosses are fiddling while the NHS burns

What planet is Amanda Pritchard on? Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the head of the health service in England outlined new guidance on menopause which could see up to 260,000 female members of staff working from home or taking on lighter duties. NHS workers who are “silently suffering” should not be expected to “grin and bear it”, said Ms Pritchard.

Wait a minute. Can you think of any other group closely associated with the NHS who are “silently suffering” and should not be expected to “grin and bear it”. A group on which the chief executive of NHS England might reasonably be expected to be focusing her attention? Perhaps Ms Pritchard momentarily forgot the 7.1 million patients on waiting lists. That almost unfathomable number of men, women and children sadly have no choice but to grin and bear it as they struggle to get an operation that will give them back a quality of life which Ms Pritchard considers to be a basic right of her own workforce.

I was livid when I saw the front-page headline: “Menopausal NHS staff can work from home.” Maybe I was so cross because, almost daily now, I am hearing awful stories from readers who cannot work, or sometimes even walk, because it’s impossible to access a public service that each year gobbles down £150 billion of our taxes. Then burps, and asks for more.

While Hannah was emailing me on Wednesday to say her two-year-old son is struggling to breathe and swallow food but is only offered a telephone appointment in the near future with an ENT consultant (estimated wait for tonsillectomy: 2.5 years), the boss of the NHS was babbling enthusiastically about fans and cooler uniforms for workers experiencing hot flushes!

Honestly, what sublime obliviousness to the pain and distress of her own customers could have led Ms Pritchard to suddenly highlight this one issue? And at a time when the NHS is in meltdown with a staffing crisis. In the Registered Nursing staff group alone, the June figures showed there was a vacancy rate of 11.8 per cent, or 46,828. We know that maternity units are often dangerously understaffed with terrible consequences for babies and mums. Now is hardly the moment to tell a quarter of a million of your workers that they can do fewer hours or not come in at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a devout champion of that heroically multi-tasking yet sorely undervalued creature, the middle-aged woman. My 2017 novel, How Hard Can It Be, was the first work of fiction to feature a heroine who is very explicitly dealing with the difficulties of menopause while struggling to remain relevant in the workplace.

What my grandmother called “The Change” comes with an extensive menu of midlife mortifications. In addition to the infamous hot flushes, Mister Google lists irregular periods, heavier periods, flooding, irritability, trouble sleeping (with or without night sweats), crashing fatigue and loss of libido, which might, just possibly, have something to do with your – oh, joy!– dry vagina. You may also experience “disturbing memory lapses”. Basically, you become like the fish who forgets what she knows every 10 seconds in that Pixar film*. What’s it called? The name will come back to you. I promise it will come back, just not when you need it to. It may take hours, or even days. When you’re menopausal, the tip of the tongue becomes a very crowded place.

I’m delighted if my novel helped to bust a taboo that used to make women feel embarrassed and alone. So why did Ms Pritchard’s announcement upset me? Because it came in a week that saw dreadful headlines about a record increase in cancer deaths (because of so much of the NHS disgracefully being shut to non-Covid patients during lockdown). Because we were told that long waits for ambulances and operations could last “years and years”. Because one in five NHS trusts just received a “red” baby death rating.

Because the head of NHS England tried to deflect attention from all of that devastating news for patients (who pay her £255,000 salary) by writing about good news for her menopausal staff. Because most of us think toddlers with enlarged tonsils who struggle to breathe should be a higher priority for the health service than the hot flushes of nurses. If Ms Pritchard doesn’t realise that, she should resign.

* Finding Dory – I told you it would come back, eventually.

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