Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Waste not, want not

The Treasury Christmas tree
The term PFI may sound like a nasty medical condition but it is, in fact, a nasty financial condition. Those three innocuous letters – PFI – actually stand for Private Finance Initiative. Our previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was a big fan of PFI and he used the scheme to finance a lot of public expenditure when he was masterminding the nation's economic miracle.

PFI works in a convoluted Byzantine way that only an accountant could dream up. Say the government wants to build a new school or hospital but doesn’t want to borrow the money and thereby appear to add to the national debt, it does a sneaky little trick of going to some nice money lenders and asking them to build the school or hospital. In return the money lender gets a juicy contract to rent the building back to the government and provide all the services required to go with it.

Now, moneylenders aren’t known for their philanthropic gestures so the government has to offer them a pretty big carrot to get involved. Imagine a carrot that’s taller than Mount Everest and juicier than a ripe papaya; that’s the sort of carrot we’re talking about. To get the PFI companies ‘on side’, the government agrees to grant 30-year contracts to run and maintain these new establishments. Kerrching!!

So far, the government has managed to secure £60 billion of new public assets via PFIs, at a bargain cost of just £260 billion. The PFI schemes have produced a veritable torrent of cash for the providers of these dodgy financial instruments.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. When Gordon Brown wanted to tart up the Treasury, rather than taking money out of general taxation which he was far too busy hosing over his client state, he got a PFI set up to finance the whole thing. The deal meant that the company running the PFI would be responsible for everything that happens to the fabric of the Treasury buildings. This is something that the new Chancellor, George Osborne discovered a couple of weeks ago when the estimate for providing the Treasury’s Christmas tree dropped on his doormat. The Chancellor was staggered to see that the PFI firm responsible for the Treasury was going to charge a whopping £875 for erecting and decorating the tree.

Understandably, the frugal Old Etonian was livid so he instructed his top mandarin to pop out to B&Q and buy a £40 tree and have that put instead. “Sorry, no can do,” said the man in the bowler hat. "It’s PFI rules," he explained. Anything that needs erecting in the Treasury – be it a light bulb or a Christmas tree – is now the responsibility and the purview of the PFI contractor. It’s all there in the small print on page 187 of the contract that Gordon signed.

George was fuming and ordered a report on the ridiculous situation, only to be told that only the contractor had to put up the tree on health and safety grounds, and that if the Chancellor insisted on bringing in his own tree then the contractor would refuse to water it, turn the fairy lights on and off and there would also be problems in disposing of the tree on Twelfth Night since it would be classed as industrial waste and would have to be removed in a vehicle that was licensed to remove business waste. EU regulations, guv.

Well, George then threw all his toys out of his pram and the PFI contractor, no doubt anxious to please the new boy, agreed to donate a tree to the Treasury free of charge. However, the contractor refused to decorate said tree, no doubt feeling it had already done more than it should to celebrate the festive season. George's mandarin was duly dispatched to Argos and decorations were procured for a very reasonable £40. Treasury staff then decorated the tree but the contractor bridled at supplying a ladder in order that the star might be placed safely at the apex of the tree. Fortunately, the Treasury’s top mandarin, who had enhanced clearance for health and safety, having attended a ladder awareness course, was able to place the star on the tree himself. Job done.

Now all this PFI chatter may sound a million miles away from the NHS and hospital food, but when you realise the amount of colossal waste and overcharging that goes on in the world of PFI, you can see that billions of pounds are literally being poured down the drain in this dreadful waste of money in many of our hospitals. For instance, the PFI contractor in one of the hospitals I was being treated in charged the hospital a staggering £45 to provide a sandwich to patients outside of mealtimes. So, when patients returned to the ward late for a meal after having had an operation, the contractor got paid almost £50 for turning up on the ward with a cardboard box containing an apple, a dry little sandwich and a cheap low-fat yogurt. And we wonder where all the country’s money has gone.

Merry Christmas.


Yet another yummy treat from Daniel in Perth, Western Australia. Looks like Weetabix that's been coated in breadcrumbs and then deep fried before being lovingly nestled on a bed of baked beans. However, I've heard from Daniel that it is in fact: a beef croquet (horrible things - like a cheap, soft meat pie), rice bubbles with full-cream milk, and orange juice, with some prunes in the covered bowl and toast in the bag in the top left.

Don't you just love the presentation? Eat your heart out Gordon Ramsay!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Gold snap

TV chef Heston Blumenthal's latest recipe for this age of austerity is a pudding made of gold. The Spiced Popping Candy Chocolate Tart was created by Heston especially for supermarket chain Waitrose and features a hazelnut shortbread base with orange chocolate ganache on top.

The dessert is decorated with gold leaf, gold lustre and that horrible popping candy that was popular back in the 1970s when it was called Space Dust. For those who don't have any spare gold lying around in their larder, a sliver of gold leaf is available from Waitrose for a very reasonable £3.99, while gold lustre will set you back just £2.49 and Space Dust is priced at a mere £2.99.

Neil Nugent, Waitrose executive chef, said the gold leaf was an affordable way of adding a touch of Blumenthal's magic to home-made desserts. 'For those who missed out on the sell out Hidden Orange Christmas pudding, this is great way to stamp the Heston hallmark on your Christmas,' he said.

'The gold leaf is something that is fun and innovative – and a great way to recreate some of Heston’s theatricality and spectacle in your own home. It is an affordable luxury for Christmas when people want to add a bit of sparkle and glamour.'

I doubt NHS patients will get to taste Heston's little confection which costs as much to make as four days' worth of food budget per patient. Still, if you feel like a 24-carat Christmas then here's the recipe:

For the spiced chocolate popping candy tart:
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground nutmeg

¼ tsp ground ginger
100g dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa solids), broken into small pieces
25ml grapeseed oil
50g popping candy

To decorate the tart:
Spiced chocolate popping candy (see above)
2 tbsp cocoa powder
½ tsp Rainbow Dust Gold Lustre
1 sheet edible gold leaf

Measure out the ground spices into a bowl and mix them all together thoroughly.

Put the chocolate and oil in a bowl and place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Using a spatula, mix the chocolate until it has fully melted and is well combined with the oil. Take the chocolate off the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Once cool, add the popping candy and mix well. Pour the mixture through a sieve in order to remove the excess chocolate and then spoon the popping candy on to a parchment-lined tray and spread with a spoon. Transfer to the freezer for 10 minutes to set.

Break the set popping candy into small pieces and add the spice mix. Toss them together in the bowl. Keep in an airtight container until needed.

To decorate the tart:
Sprinkle the spiced popping candy generously over the surface of the tart. Place the cocoa powder and gold lustre in a sieve and dust over the tart. Add the gold leaf for a really glitzy finish.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Nothing to do with us, Guv!

A great-grandmother was left in soiled bed sheets for 12 hours as nurses chatted outside her room in a multi-million pound NHS hospital, according to The Daily Mail.

Ruby Hamilton, 75, had been admitted to the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Edgbaston, Birmingham, with heart failure five weeks ago but was forced to sleep in urine and vomit-covered sheets despite repeatedly buzzing the nurses for help.

Ruby's horrified daughter Christine, 48, said: 'I was so shocked a patient could be left in such an appalling state. 'My mother had been lying in her own filth overnight. It was so bad her sheets were drenched with urine. She was very distressed and humiliated but the nurses didn't seem to care. They just stood outside her room gossiping while my mother suffered.'

Ruby's family are now so concerned about her being left in squalor again they are taking it in turns to sleep in a chair next to her. She is expected to be discharged later this week when she will return home to Birmingham where she lives with her husband Hurbert, 85.

The new 1,213-bed Queen Elizabeth Hospital opened in June and was hailed as one of the most modern facilities in the world. Hospital bosses yesterday apologised to Ruby and her family.

Kay Fawcett, chief nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, said: 'The hospital is concerned about the question of care delivered to patients at all stages of their illness. I am satisfied that the patient was not left for a long period of time in a wet bed and, as soon as the nurses were alerted, they took immediate steps to address the situation and to unreservedly apologise to the patient and the relatives.'

So, it sounds as though the hospital is saying Ruby's family made it all up and that the poor old lady wasn't left soaked in her own urine, vomit and faeces? Nothing to see here... move along!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Not as daft as it sounds

An article in today's Daily Mail suggests that hospitals serve Big Macs or Pret à Manger sandwiches to short-term patients. I can already hear the likes of Gillian McKeith holding up garlic and a crucifix at the very suggestion, but hang on a moment... it's a fairly sensible idea. Besides, some hospital food makes the I'm A Celebrity bush tucker trials that so revolted Ms McKeith look like a hearty and welcoming meal.

Almost everyone, whether they're willing to admit it or not, would, if faced with the choice of a wholemeal tofu sandwich or a cheeseburger, probably opt for the fast-food option. Oh, of course they'll pretend to prefer the 'healthy choice' but unless they want to end up looking like Ms McKeith, they'd be better off with something a bit more tasty.

Now, no one is suggesting that you feed pizzas, burgers or baltis to long-term patients, day after day. However, so much food is wasted when fed to short-term patients that it's just a scandalous waste. Either do away with food for short-term patients and bring in an outside caterer from the high street from whom patients can buy their own food, or else serve up something edible. It's no good serving up Second World War slop just to keep Unison members in a job.

When it comes to longer term patients, hospitals really need to move up a gear and start planning menus of freshly cooked nutritious food that's tailored to each individual patient's nutritional needs. Alongside this, the hospitals should be offering vitamin and mineral supplements as well as probiotics for those who really could benefit from their use.

There... NHS food problems solved and money saved.

A matter of concern

Stephen Neary is a 20-year-old man with Autism trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. It's a story that should be on the front page of every newspaper – but it won’t be. They will keep silent. If you are concerned that we're marching towards an unaccountable and arrogant police state, then please read this heart-breaking story and spread the word.

More Aussie grub

Yet another appetising snap from Daniel. It's a piece of fish with cubed pumpkin, murdered broccoli and some unnaturally white mashed potato. I will say one thing for Australian hospital food, they do at least try to give you whole pieces of meat or fish. Frankly, I'm not sure what I would have done with a whole piece of protein as most of my meals were mashed, hashed, sliced, diced or otherwise beaten to a pulp in order to accommodate patients without the benefit of their own teeth. That said, I'm still not sure that this plate of sustenance would do anything to raise my mood while lying in my sick bed.

Monday, 6 December 2010


According to the UK Patients' Association, the number of elderly people leaving NHS hospitals in a malnourished state has doubled in just three years. Apparently, nurses are too busy to make sure that patients eat their food. Some 13,500 frail patients developed malnutrition in our nation's hospitals last year. How on earth nurses and doctors can allow this to continue is beyond my comprehension.

There's a lot of talk about serving food for vulnerable patients on so-called 'red trays' but the evidence I have collected so far on my research into the scandal of inadequate NHS food, tells me this is not always effective. Nurses may well claim they are too busy to care but I've personally experienced sloppy nursing, staff gossiping around the nursing station and a general couldn't-care-less attitude displayed by some healthcare workers.

No one on the wards of our hospitals appears to be in overall charge and more time is spent on form-filling and the collection of box-ticking statistics than it is on general healthcare. Many times when I was unable to move I was just tossed a cloth and a bowl of water and told to wash myself. Hardly ever was there sufficient time or care to help me maintain a reasonable level of human dignity. It's an absolute disgrace and made me really, really angry.

If I can do something about this scandal by publicising the problem here then I will. At least something good may come out of my experience. If any readers of my blog would like to email me stories or evidence of neglect and inadequate food then I'll do my best to publish it here.

It's time we stopped this stain on the reputation of the NHS.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Look at the size of that...

Another shot from Daniel and just look at the size of that sprout! It's a mini cabbage. Where in Australia can you possibly source a brassica that large? Can't say that the unidentified dish is floating my boat. I can't decide whether this meal was put together as some cruel and unusual punishment or else it was assembled by a blind chef. Wise decision to leave this one, Daniel.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Masterchef reject

Another photo from Daniel showing how dire hospital food can be. I can only assume that Australia has imported its hospital chefs from Blighty. We've done a few bad things to Australia over the years but they never deserved this. Time for reparations?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

It's freezing here...

While Britain suffers arctic temperatures and snow drifts, the Hot Air Carnival currently taking place in Cancun, Mexico, continues at a red hot pace. Some 20,000 delegates attending the green jamboree were enjoying themselves courtesy of the world's taxpayers at a beach party where the tequila flowed like rivers and the prawns were being served by the bucket. Meanwhile the delegates are calling for the rationing of food, transport and energy in the developed world in order to stave off global warming. Oh... and they want more green taxes to fund their eco fantasy. Pass the sick bag!

Upside down

Daniel from Perth, Western Australia, has emailed me some photos of his favourite hospital food and so I thought I'd kick of with this excellent demonstration of why hospital chefs should never take LSD. Apparently, this offering is a pork medallion with apple sauce, pureed pumpkin and a dose of peas that have been artfully hidden under some anaemic mash. Daniel doesn't say whether it was tasty but personally I don't think I could have got passed that pumpkin without wearing sunglasses. Still, credit where it's due, at least Daniel has been given a lump of meat that hasn't been minced, shredded, macerated or liquified so that counts for something. That said, just imagine if this was the culinary highlight of your day!