If one of my cats became acutely ill outside the normal working hours of our local veterinary practice, it would still be possible to get treatment. By phoning the usual vet's number, I would be directed to an out-of-hours practitioner who would give me a time – usually within the hour – and a place – always local – to attend with the cat.
Over the 30-plus years of cat owning, it has happened a handful of times. Late at night or at the weekend a distressed cat has looked at me mournfully, clearly feeling under the weather and, not wishing to subject the pet to risk of serious harm, I've called the emergency service. It costs, of course it does, we are talking about vets, who are expensive at the best of times and even more eye-wateringly so out-of-hours. But for my peace of mind and, more importantly, to restore my cat to health, I will happily pay the charges.
Last week I was the distressed and ill subject. I had an exceptionally sore throat – think swallowing razor blades – and, after popping paracetamol and 'pain relief' (allegedly) lozenges, it was clear something rather stronger was needed. The earliest I could get a GP appointment that fitted in with my work schedule was in four days' time. I am a civil funeral celebrant. I am committed to fixed appointments – funeral services – that I cannot rearrange. The work diary is also filled with family visits that have often been
complicated to organise – involving people taking time off work or travelling some distance – in order to talk about a service the following week. I can't change them at the drop of a hat.
So I worked on. And given that my job is all about speaking, it has been a tough and exceptionally painful week. I also found it almost impossible to sleep and, in the middle of one endless night, was seriously contemplating a 45-mile drive to the nearest A&E for antibiotics or at least a stronger painkiller than is available over the pharmacy counter.
Oh, and yes, I had been to see the pharmacist and was directed to a throat spray that made no difference whatsoever. But A&E, so we are constantly exhorted, is for really serious cases, life and death stuff. As sorry for myself as I was feeling, I knew I was hardly that bad. And phoning NHS 24, the telehealth service, didn't seem appropriate either – they would have either directed me to a pharmacy (tick), A&E or sent out an emergency GP. I wasn't an emergency and I wasn't about to pretend to be one.
What I really wanted, in the absence of being able to see my own GP during normal working hours because of the demands of my job, was to pay to see one in the early evening. A 7pm appointment would have worked just fine, and I would have been happy to fork out £50, £100 even, for a local consultation, not expecting a home visit but happy to go to the doctor's consulting rooms. And I firmly reject that offering such a service could warrant an accusation of 'NHS privatisation by the back door'. Providing such an opportunity would simply be an acknowledgement of the way people work now, and that the 9-5 appointments system (if you're lucky, in rural areas), booking up many days in advance, is no longer a sufficiently acceptable service.
Many of the demands made on overstretched hospital A&E departments are down to the inadequacy of the provision of GP services at times that are convenient for all patients. If a professional out-of-hours clinical service can be provided – at a cost borne by me – for my cats, surely it's about time we humans got in on the act.