David Behrens: If only there was a vaccine against pointless waste in the NHS

I still can’t have a flu jab without thinking of the old Morecambe and Wise routine.

Eric: “I’ll be fine – I’ve had a jab. In my arm.”

Ernie: “You’ll still get it.”

Eric: “Yeah, but my arm won’t.”

I’ve had one for the last few years and I always know when it’s due because the weather turns cold, leaves fall from the trees and the clocks go back.

This year, however, I had the additional reminder of a text message, inviting me to make an appointment, and instructing me to call the surgery even if I didn’t want one.

Upon having been jabbed and almost before I had rolled down my sleeve, I had another message. How likely was I to recommend the medical centre to friends and family if they needed similar treatment? I was to reply by texting 1 for “extremely likely”, 6 for “don’t know”, and so on.

On a scale of pointlessness, where 1 is “completely pointless” and 6 is “an unnecessary waste of money at a time when the NHS is struggling for cash and facing an unprecedented demand for beds if the expected winter epidemic manifests itself”, I give this the full six. I ask you – who in his or her right mind has ever made a shortlist of GPs’ surgeries in which to have a flu jab?

Are they planning to go into the holiday business, creating a market for vaccine tourists who will book a trip to the Highlands on the basis that the clinics there have a higher rating than the one five minutes’ walk from home?

I was curious to know how many people had taken the bait and responded to meaningless surveys like this – and here is the answer: hardly anyone.

Take my surgery in Menston – the one at which I booked my jab. It has 10,934 registered patients and precisely two of them have bothered to review it.

This is not untypical. The four next nearest practices, with a total of 43,242 patients, had attracted 16 reviews between them, on the NHS Choices website. I can’t say I’m surprised. We all attend the surgery that is closest and most convenient to us, irrespective of any other qualities it may or may not have.

Yet the NHS spends a very considerable amount on running exercises like this. All involve contracts with IT specialists, statisticians and Uncle Tom Cobley, quite apart from the cost of sending the texts themselves.

NHS Digital’s published accounts reveal that it spent £3.1m on “information and analytics” and a further £2.2m on computer maintenance between last April and December alone. I’m not a doctor but it seems to me that that five million would go a fair way towards treating the sick in the event of a cold snap this winter.

And what is NHS Digital, anyway? In its own words, it is the “national provider of information, data and IT” for those involved in health and social care. These IT systems, presumably, are the same ones that hackers found it so easy to infiltrate last summer, when they demanded payment of a ransom for their release.

It is not the only area in which the National Health Service throws money down the toilet – literally, in some cases. A health trust in Sunderland was revealed earlier this year to have paid £66 for 100 loo rolls, even though an identical pack was sold to a different trust for around half as much.

The NHS is said to employ 12,000 NHS finance managers nationally, but some of them are clearly better than others. In a report for the Department of Health last year, Lord Carter of Coles discovered that the overall costs for running hospitals, which cover everything from electricity to Elastoplast varied almost tenfold in different parts of the country.

This has been the case ever since Tony Blair’s government devolved spending to individual trusts, thereby denying health service buyers strength in numbers and allowing suppliers the freedom to no longer declare their hands.

As for NHS Choices, the website on which those two people in Menston chose to share their views, its “director of delivery” says its aspiration is “to become a world-leading, multi-channel service and front door for digital health”.

On a scale of gibberish, reply 1 for “complete nonsense” and 6 for “not what I pay my health stamp for, thanks all the same”.

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