In recent posts about Charles Dickens' connections with this borough, reference has been made to the old Barnet workhouse, built in the early 1830s, which some think may have been the inspiration for scenes from 'Oliver Twist'. This building was demolished, without warning, and in the face of opposition from local residents by the hospital developers a few years ago, supposedly in order to provide much needed extra parking areas.
Unfortunately yesterday morning I had occasion to see for myself that all these years later, (and despite the continual complaints from patients and visitors about the cost and chronic shortage of parking at Barnet General) the workhouse site is still derelict, still fenced off with temporary (or rather, no: long term interim?)- barricades, so old now that some of the sections are themselves disintegrating, or being held up with lengths of rope staked in the ground.
I suppose the land is more valuable as a potential source of development, rather than a car park, and will, like so many other former public building sites in the borough, be flogged off as soon as they think they can get away with it.
Peering through the fence, now, you find an ugly wasteland of self sown weeds, rough patches of grass, a opportunistic collective of ash trees squatting amongst the remaining bricks and discarded fixtures of the old workhouse. It occurred to me that it all presented a fitting metaphor for so many of the things that are wrong with Broken Barnet, and wrong within a wider context too. The destruction of our social history, and heritage, the use of land for profit, rather than the benefit of the community - and the new reality of lessons forgotten from our social history coming back to haunt us now, nearly two centuries after the workhouse was built.
I spent too long looking at the demolished building, because I didn't really want to leave and enter the hospital, where a close family friend of many years, a dear friend, was dying in the intensive care ward. I didn't want to face up to what I knew was going to be a very difficult experience, and a reminder of my last visits to the hospital, when my own parents died there. I didn't want to face up either to the terrible truth that this death was one which, we learnt yesterday, if things had been done differently, would not have been inevitable.
The stark truth is now, in this borough, if not everywhere, if you are seriously unwell, and do not have private healthcare, your life may well be put at risk by the delays that exist in giving you access to the proper assessment and treatment you may need.
I have had some experience of this new reality, in the last few months, myself. Luckily my case is not so important, but it has been a worrying and educational experience.
Last winter, in need of an urgent scan for a problem, I was told that I would have to wait four weeks for an appointment. Complaints by me and my GP made no difference. My GP eventually sent me to A&E, where I sat for three hours, watching the staff only just coping with a constant influx of patients, and wondering how on earth the service will be able to accommodate more demand when they shut A&E at Chase Farm hospital - (in complete contradiction to the specific pre election promises by David Cameron, incidentally). Eventually I was seen, had it confirmed I had a problem, but was told my GP should not have sent me, and they refused to do a scan. They were 'rationing' the availability of scans.
After kicking up more fuss, I managed to get an appointment at the Royal Free within three weeks, and was then told to wait four months to see a consultant to discuss my problem. Seeing a consultant turned out to be a farcical five minute experience, with the consultant not even bothering to sit down, resulting in an assurance that it would all be better in a few months, a referral to a pain clinic, and a list of unanswered questions. Of course, I could have paid to see the same man, in a local private hospital, in a long appointment, five months ago, and in retrospect, I realise that is what I should have done. But why should I have to?
Any appointment with my local GPs at the moment is inevitably accompanied by apologies from the doctor who will be fighting to contain his or her fury over what is happening both nationally and locally with the NHS. They explain that now, in Barnet, unless you are clearly very seriously ill, or have a trivial complaint that can be addressed locally, you cannot be referred for treatment through the 'fast track' system, whatever the effects of your condition on your life and well being.
Of course the problem with this brilliant policy is that it depends on the ability of your GP to guess how ill you might be, as the Catch 22 system does not allow for any proper assessment of condition within a timeframe that would be appropriate, if you do have something that needs immediate attention, but which is not immediately apparent.
My friend died yesterday afternoon, shortly after I saw her. Her death, ironically, was from a complication similar to the problem they thought I might have. It should have been properly assessed and treated weeks ago, and she would no doubt now be recovering.
I was told to be aware of this complication, in the months I waited to see a consultant - in her case, because she was elderly (although very active and healthy for her age) she was simply kept waiting in line to be seen, and taken into hospital far too late, which turned out to be a fatal error. How many other fatal errors are happening, we must ask? And how much worse will it get, once the coalition government's assault on the NHS is in full swing? And here is a new, and rather chilling factor: once the responsibilty for healthcare is devolved to the local authority?
In my friend's lifetime, she had seen the creation of the Welfare state, and the NHS, and was of the generation that has made the biggest contribution to these institutions through income tax. And at the end of her life, she was betrayed by the politicians who are trashing these great institutions, and forcing healthcare providers to ration the treatment and support that they are supposed to make accessible to all.
The tale of two Barnets is not just about council services, social care, housing and education: there is a growing, yawning gulf opening up in this borough between the standard of health care for those with means, and those without. It is quite fitting, perhaps that the old workhouse lies in ruins bang in front of the shiny new Barnet General: the workhouse system of support for those in need, caught in poverty and ill health, was replaced by the new promises of the Welfare state. For all our lives we have depended on this support, and expected access to healthcare as our right. It is now becoming increasingly difficult to excercise that right. It's a short walk from the workhouse to the hospital, but it's getting further and further away for most of us.
If you live in Barnet, you must become aware of the new reality of the way in which healthcare is working now, and how much worse it is set to become. If you are not afraid of this new reality, you should be. And you should be lobbying your political representatives, and telling them you do not want to see the Welfare State you've paid for all your lives destroyed for the purposes of political ideology and the profitability of private enterprise.
There is an election coming up - they are local London elections, but healthcare is now a local issue. Don't vote Tory because you think Boris Johnson is a good laugh: if you do, the laugh is on you - give the Tories a bloody nose, and let them sit in A&E for eternity, waiting to get it fixed.