John Bird: We look out for each other now. We must do so in future too

‘For your own good’ may seem patronising, but how essential it is now. As a way of avoiding deaths and further suffering

St Thomas’ Hospital, opposite Parliament and a spit and a fart from Number 10, has once again proved itself geographically well placed in its dealing appositely with the PM’s viral infection. Once upon a time responsibilities for Whitehall and nearby Buckingham Palace’s health would have been shared with St George’s. This was a very fine hospital at Hyde Park Corner and – once being knocked off my bike nearby – I was treated in casualty (A&E) there most expeditiously.

Here royalty with sudden nose bleeds and minor injuries would also have been treated. But in Maggie’s time it was decided to move the whole kit and caboodle south to Tooting.

Not so far also from Number 10 was another hospital of choice called Charing Cross. It nestled near Trafalgar Square and was in the 1980s also moved, to Hammersmith in West London. And of course also nearby was Westminster Hospital, now united into Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and placed down where Fulham and Chelsea meet.

Such an enormous movement of hospitals, and also such an enormous movement of health, with Parliament once so surrounded by health providers it was spoilt for choice. But at least now outer parts of London can have the hospitals that once crowded the Parliamentary estate and royal residences.

I knew St Thomas’ previous to its current fame in nursing Boris through Covid-19. A former revolutionary comrade of mine was a top doctor there and it was he who alerted me to the need for more prevention. Standing in A&E one day he said, in his best Marxist manner, that 70 per cent of people there – and using the wards of the hospital – were first of all victims of poverty. That their poverty put them on a road that through poor nurturing, poor food and bad and dangerous employment meant they would eventually become patients.

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It was an eye-opener for me and set me on the road of trying to push the NHS towards more prevention. But of course more recently I have realised that our health service has had to mop up the old and the poor like a giant social sponge; hence its almost total 80 per cent occupancy before the virus hit. And the enormous pressure it is bravely responding to as I write.

Another time I was in St Thomas’ Hospital was when, in conversation with a beggar in the early days of The Big Issue, he fell down – suddenly. He hit the ground and cut his head. Fortunately I had a clean white hankie to cover his cut. I hailed a cab and took him straight to St Thomas’ where he was treated right royally. They could not do enough for him, and after cleaning him up they took him in for observation. My later enquiries led to naught because he dismissed himself the next day and disappeared back into the homeless hinterland.

I have realised that our health service has had to mop up the old and the poor like a giant social sponge; hence its almost total 80 per cent occupancy before the virus hit

But I was so pleased and the memory remained with me because of the generosity of spirit expressed towards a homeless person. It is a generosity that is rekindled for me when we hear that no homeless person will be left outside in this time of curfew. It is proving a monumental task of getting people indoors, but it is all for their own good.

‘Their own good’: what a term. Various newspaper pages show photos of police officers standing above sunbathers in parks and on beaches; and using the term ‘for your own good’ to get the sunbathers to go home. ‘For your own good’ may seem patronising, but how essential it is now. As a way of avoiding deaths and further suffering.

Another time I was at St Thomas’ Hospital I was there ‘for my own good’.

Not long before the start of The Big Issue I had a drink-inspired argument with some building workers in London’s West End. In the process I turned to face one of my tormentors and was hit with a shovel across the face. I went down like a ton of bricks, injuring myself further. Once up, running madly in pursuit of my attacker, I fell again.

Eventually I made it to Trafalgar Square to sit among some street drinkers. My face was bleeding heavily and they advised me to go to hospital. I insisted I was getting on the Tube and heading back home.

The next minute I was surrounded by a group of policemen. They also suggested I went to hospital. But I insisted I was on my way home on the Tube. They told me I was going to hospital ‘for my own good’.

‘For my own good’ is all over this coronavirus. Because ‘my own good’ is ‘your own good’. For police officers back in the early ’90s, picking me off the streets and taking me to the hospital was because you cannot have people bleeding and injured wandering our streets. 

Unfortunately there are too many injured people living and being in our streets normally, and if we were to extend ‘for their own good’ further we would not allow them to live there. Let’s hope we don’t forget ‘for their own good’ once we are free of the curfew.

That night I arrived bloodied and protesting in handcuffs in the A&E of St Thomas’ Hospital ‘for my own good’. Thank God we have not forgotten that contractual arrangement we all have with each other. And which is needed now more than ever.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue