Tuesday, April 15, 2008

toothache, obesity and one-legged lorry drivers

weighty matters
I've been wondering recently if I'm the only person to notice that the Government's biggest agency, the NHS, is obsessed with collecting personal data concerning, but but in no way confined to, ethnicity.

For example, my brother Asinus's wife Patientia recently came home from a visit to friends, and brought with her an unwanted souvenir in the form of a very painful toothache. Now this is a woman who, when in labour, was attached to a contractions monitor; the lines were jiggling like an oscilloscope measuring a sonic boom, and she was reclined reading a woman's magazine.

Patientia was reluctant to go to A&E, so Asinus called NHS Direct and asked the lady on the other end of the line if she could confirm the opinion that his wife should go to the hospital, given that she was in severe dental pain. The woman on the other side proceeded to ask Asinus's address, and got his postcode wrong several times, despite his having spelt it out both conventionally and using the phonetic alphabet. He patiently told her that no, his wife's lips weren't blue, she was not having trouble breathing and hadn't taken more painkillers than the packaging advised, while repeating his original query several times.

The point at which he hung up was when the woman asked him Patientia's ethnic origin, then announced that she was going to put him on hold to wait to talk to a clinical advisor, this being whom he thought he had been addressing all the time. (The clinical advisor phoned him soon afterwards to say that ethnic origin was one of a number of pieces of information required to prioritise calls - by which time, following Professor Calculus's avuncular advice, Patientia was in a taxi headed for Addenbrooke's, but that's another story.)

Again, the other day Minima came home from school with a leaflet entitled Why your child's weight matters. It informs us:

"Children...are now having their height and weight measured as part of the National Child Measurement Programme [duh], which takes place every year...Trained staff, such as a school nurse, will weigh and measure your child. Care is taken that this is done in a sensitive manner and your child's results will not be disclosed to teachers or other children. Though you do not
have to participate
, we do urge you to encourage your child to take part."

We are informed that, the weighing having been done, "your local NHS primary care trust will hold the information along with some other details, including your child's date of birth and school. "

Ok, so far so fair, but then Minima's head-teacher says in her accompanying letter that the "other details" are her sex, postcode and, guess what, ethnicity. The leaflet continues, "The PCT will send this information securely to the Department of Health, with details that could identify your child (such as name and date of birth) removed." Very laudable, but the PCT still has the information, and would presumably give it to the DoH if required, under communication protocols which seek to establish "a constant stream of information, available to all [government agencies]".

While it may be a matter of concern for health authorities where my children lie on the line between skeletal and elephantine, a big kid's a big kid no matter whether it's white British, Afro-Carribean, Bangladeshi or a traveller. Categorising children as either normal, whatever that means, or obese, and overlaying an ethnic tag which is often meaningless - for example there's no ethnic category for British Asian or black Irish - is only going to lead to the "low self-esteem" which attracts "bullying and teasing" that the NHS helpfully advises us are the consequences of letting children eat like children.

Ethnic origin is important, but the culture in which we live is at least as much so. I'll always be a Jock, but earning a living in England is more important to me than papering my walls with tartan, reciting poetry that sounds half-foreign to most Scots, and participating in the seasonal ritual humiliation of watching my national football team underperform.
Robin Page - with thanks to the Cambridge Evening News

However, former Cambridgeshire councillor Robin Page (right) found himself on the wrong end of a hand-wringing fest for anxious white liberals when he was arrested for saying that he wanted to have the same rights as "a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged, lesbian lorry driver". There was a complaint, presumably from one of the region's community of peripatetic herbivorous unipedes, but Mr Page ended up being paid £2000 in compensation for wrongful arrest. Happily, he's standing for election again.

Meanwhile, Minima, Minora and (hopefully) the rest of the draughty old fen's children can be assured in the knowledge that we love them no matter their body-shapes. And if they put on weight, which is not necessarily the same as being clinically obese and should not be deliberately confused with it, so what? They can always phone NHS Direct for slimming advice and to assure the operator that they're not in the process of dying, just flabby.

I should add in closing that this is an equal opportunities blog. If any black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged, lesbian lorry-driver feels I have offended her, she need only drive me to the nearest greasy-spoon and buy me a bacon sarnie so we can talk it over.

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