Dad survived the war, but was nearly done for by five days in the NHS
19th January 2022

Dad survived the war, but was nearly done for by five days of NHS ‘care’: At 97, ex-Mail City Editor Sir Patrick Sergeant drank champagne every day. Then he was taken to hospital and, as his daughter describes, what he faced made him lose the will to live

  • UK-author Harriet Sargeant looks at her father’s experience with the NHS
  • The 97-year-old was rushed into hospital but had a seven-hour wait in A&E
  • Sir Patrick Sergeant says that the lack of care made him lose the will to live

Last week, my 97-year-old father was rushed to hospital with an infection. A seven-hour wait in A&E resulted in not only a diagnosis of suspected septicaemia but also — thanks to a routine test carried out as part of the doctors’ investigations — Covid.

Despite his having barely any coronavirus symptoms, I had to explain to him what this meant. Isolation on an NHS Covid ward.

Strictly no visits. ‘Righty-oh,’ he said cheerfully. My father always tries to see the bright side. Then silence as the news sunk in. ‘It’s a bastard, isn’t it.’ My father never swears.

I admit I burst into tears. Some years ago, I spent nine months in five hospitals, shadowing staff and interviewing patients for a think-tank report on NHS management.

I met inspiring individuals. But I also saw indifferent nurses, hospital-acquired infection, neglected and hungry patients, waste and inferior treatment.

I feared what my father was in for. When a dear friend was dying in hospital 15 years ago, I slept three nights on the chair by his bedside, so concerned was I by the standard of nursing I had witnessed during my research.

Harriet Sargeant revealed how her 97-year-old father, an ex-City Editor for the Daily Mail who survived the war, nearly lost the will to live after his experience with the NHS. Pictured: Sir Patrick and daughter Harriet

But, of course, I could not do that on a Covid ward. I imagined my father crying out in pain and being ignored by the nurses as they had ignored my friend. It was an unbearable image.

And this time I would not be there to intervene. Communication was vital. My father has only a vague idea how his mobile works.

Even less about keeping it charged. In the brief time before he vanished into isolation in the hospital near my parents’ London home, we snatched what we both feared were final exchanges.

‘Keep smiling!’ my father urged, summing up his attitude to life. ‘Enjoy yourself and support Ga Ga,’ (my mother, aged 95, to whom he has been married for 70 years). ‘And keep your pecker up,’ he added when I started to sniff.

After a sleepless night, I called my father. His mobile whined and clicked like a bad-tempered bird waking up. I held my breath.

At least it was charged. No answer. I tried again. Suddenly my father burst on to the line, ‘Harriet!’ he boomed. ‘How good to hear a human voice,’ he added, with the desperation of a drowning man.

He could not understand the nurses and he was hungry. ‘I am looking at a bit of white toast.’ He was also missing the usual bottle of champagne he still consumes every day. ‘Even in the war you got a drink!’

My father is Sir Patrick Sergeant, former City Editor of the Daily Mail and founder of the hugely successful Euromoney magazine.

He reinvented financial journalism, determined to make it of interest to the ordinary reader, and was behind the 1966 launch of Money Mail, the Mail’s peerless financial section.

Harriet said her father developed bedsores and complained of being hungry as the lack of basic care while in hospital became obvious. Pictured: Sir Patrick with four-year-old Harriet and his wife Gillian

Gregarious and stylish, with a zest for life and sense of adventure, he had a huge impact on me and my younger sister, the renowned painter Emma Sergeant. He was, and is, a wonderful father.

Even at his great age, my father retains his can-do optimism, his bravery and character. That is, until he came up against the NHS.

What was to happen to him in isolation sums up the failings of our health service. It has led me to conclude that problems I identified almost two decades ago have only worsened, exacerbated by the Government’s obsession with Covid.

The lack of basic care soon became obvious. My father developed bedsores. NHS England admits pressure ulcers are a ‘mainly avoidable harm associated with healthcare delivery’.

In other words, they are caused by poor nursing and so widespread it costs the NHS more than £3.8 million daily in increased illness and late discharges.

Or as my father put it: ‘The nurses left me sitting on my bum all day. No one worried at all.’

There were other signs that my father was not getting even the basic care vital for an elderly man. He complained of being hungry.

The nurses failed to keep him clean and, when he eventually came home, he had a nasty skin rash.

After three days, a physio rang me to get ‘a benchmark’ of what my father was like before he entered hospital.

She described the man she saw in front of her: a listless fellow, slumped to one side, who failed to lift his hand when asked.

My heart sank. This was not the father I knew. For while he may not be mobile, just the previous weekend we had chatted animatedly, and he’d had no trouble raising his hand when it held a glass of champagne to toast my mother.

Imagine how I felt, knowing he was confined in such a place.

Harriet (pictured) firmly believes our myopic adherence to Covid ‘guidance’ is blinding us to the fundamental failings of the NHS

It’s all too clear to me that medics are blindly following Covid rules that demean the dignity of patients — especially the elderly.

Almost entirely alone on his Covid ward, my father rapidly deteriorated, bored and frightened, his lively joie de vivre fading until he barely had the strength to keep his head upright.

And let me be clear: such deterioration seemed more from lack of nursing than either Omicron or his original infection. It is no exaggeration to say I feared for his life.

I now firmly believe our myopic adherence to Covid ‘guidance’ is blinding us to the fundamental failings of the NHS — an inability to deliver basic patient care, as my father has sadly discovered. ‘Covid didn’t make me ill. It was the NHS,’ he says today.

It enrages me to think of the hypocrisy of a Government that saw fit to hold boozy parties at the height of the first lockdown — yet still, almost two years on, keeps vulnerable patients trapped on isolation wards with staff who are at best indifferent, at worst callous.

If Boris and his inner circle were able to ‘bring their own booze’ all those months ago, why was my father now forcibly subjected to a horrendous ordeal?

Of course, not all the nurses were uncaring. But my father’s care, as he described it himself, was ‘spasmodic’.

When one kind nurse was there, I received updates. My father was given cups of coffee, and she brought him an iPad so we could see each other, to which my father exclaimed: ‘Bless her heart!’ But in her absence nothing appeared to get done. ‘The other nurse walks past me when I call,’ my father said.

At first, I put it down to a busy Covid ward. My father snorted: ‘There’s only two of us patients here.’ Desperate to get him out, after four days, I tried to persuade the doctor to let my father come home.

My mother and their carer, had now tested positive for Covid, again virtually symptomless. If, I argued, everyone at home had coronavirus, what was the point in keeping my father in isolation?

The doctor ummed. She wanted to keep him in a few days longer for observation. But if his health failed, she promised she would make sure he died at home.

Harriet (pictured) said she believed her father was now in safe hands after being discharged, however he lay alone in the cold ambulance

Shaken, I explained this to my father — only for the nurse to call me immediately to discuss his discharge. Did this mean he was dying? No one seemed to know and I had no way of contacting the doctor.

Death, however, was certainly not on my father’s agenda. He was overjoyed at the prospect of coming home and eating a decent meal. ‘Put the champagne on ice!’ he ordered.

The ambulance crew, needed to transport him home because of his lack of mobility, then arrived. We had been warned they were very busy and in short supply. My father’s spirits soared.

Suddenly, the nurse on duty said: ‘He’s not going home.’

‘Why not?’ demanded my father.

‘I am not ready and no one told me,’ she said, flouncing off. The ambulance men shrugged, turned around and left.

‘That was a bad moment,’ said my father later on the mobile, ‘I’m bloody annoyed to be chained up here for another night.’ His voice dropped. ‘Get me out of here,’ he begged.

The next morning, five days after he left home, ‘after a lot of faffing around with bits of paper’, the ambulance with my father in pulled up outside my parents’ house. Then disaster struck. The two-man ambulance crew suddenly realised my father was not ‘weight-bearing’.

He could not get himself up and out of the ambulance and he was too heavy to carry on a stretcher. The nurses had failed to pass on this basic information to the crew. The men called a second ambulance team to help. As my father had Covid, they had to have extra PPE.

So, again, Dad waited. My mother was too frail to go out to the ambulance, and was too confused and upset to call me.

After an emotional week, I had relaxed, believing he was now in safe hands after being discharged. Instead, my father lay alone in the ambulance. ‘It was bloody freezing. I was getting colder and colder.’

Then my father, always full of optimism and vitality, did something he has never done before, not even in wartime when he was an 18-year-old seaman on a corvette warship in the North Atlantic. He gave up. ‘I honestly thought I was going to die in that ambulance.’

Harriet (pictured) said her father’s carer was so shocked by his condition after returning from hospital that she took photographs in case the family wanted to complain

After 90 minutes, the second crew arrived and carried him upstairs. A few days at home with good care and my father is now almost back to his old self.

When I visited, his carer explained she was so shocked by his condition when he returned from hospital, she had photographed his bedsores and rash in case we wanted to complain.

We decided against it. As a family, we do not have much time left together. We don’t want to spend it lost in the bureaucracy of the NHS complaints procedure.

Despite what we encountered, I do believe it is unfair to pick on the individuals responsible — the spiteful nurse, the lack of basic nursing, the incompetent discharge service or the callous ambulance men.

Set against them are the many NHS staff who work their hearts out.

No, the outstanding feature of my father’s care was its sheer randomness. In one day, often in one hour, my father experienced disorganisation and indifference side-by-side with first-class care and kindness.

‘What the ward needed was a good editor,’ said my father, as a former journalist. ‘No one appeared to be in charge. I kept asking for matron.’

But matron has long fallen out of favour in the NHS. Many nursing staff and unions are uncomfortable with the idea of an authority figure. They dismiss the old-fashioned matron as ‘sexist’.

Unfortunately, as I saw when shadowing matrons and sisters, it goes against the NHS culture to reprimand staff.

As one sister explained sadly to me then: ‘We are a caring profession who sometimes put caring for each other above caring for patients.’

I watched gobsmacked as a matron weakly admonished a nurse for a flagrant breach of infection rules, before later agonising that she had said too much. ‘I don’t like to nag.’

These incidents happened many years ago but not much appears to have changed. In the absence of authority, there is little incentive for a nurse to treat my father for bedsores except her own humanity and professionalism.

Nor is there any punishment if she forgets or does not bother. Or reward for an ambulance crew that works flat out during their shift, or consequences for those who sneak off and leave hard-pressed colleagues to pick up the slack.

As my parents’ carer had seen the week before. Without a change of culture, no amount of government money will rectify the situation or make things better for patients.

Safely back at home, my father leant back against his pillows and raised a glass of champagne. ‘It’s not a bad old life,’ he said.

But only just for my dear, old dad. My father survived septicaemia. He breezed through Covid thanks to the vaccination programme. But he was nearly done for by the NHS. Not something I can easily forget or forgive.  

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