VISION MIX

Published: 10/04/2003, Volume II3, No. 5850 Page 18

For those of us not directly involved in reporting the war, life was a tad quiet for the first couple of weeks. Not that this lessened the tension.

Instead, we home reporters spend a lot of time pondering how on earth to get on air - indeed how to justify one's existence and salary when bed-blocking, foundation hospitals and GP contracts pale into insignificance.

Of course, we are on standby in the event of an attack on the UK, which I guess at last gives health journalists and NHS managers something in common.

But in case you think this is a pitiful bid for sympathy, something interesting has begun to happen.

Other news without a Safwan, Basra or Kuwait dateline is beginning to appear on our screens.According to The Sunday Telegraph (my old paper), Number 10 told officials in Whitehall that the moment of 'reentry', when the normal business of departmental briefing on domestic policy could resume, would be after a fortnight.

And sure enough, there we were, summoned to the Department of Health for a briefing just two days after the end of the moratorium.

Health secretary Alan Milburn was in disturbingly good humour, cracking jokes, asking for questions even after the press officer had called an end to the event. And although he did not answer some of the more interesting points he was disarmingly charming in his side-stepping.

The briefing was for a launch of the report on where the extra NHS investment is being spent.

More than half of it is on staff and pay, as it turned out, although I think most of us knew that.Mr Milburn's quote of the day had to be 'you gotta keep your foot on the accelerator'.

Very gung-ho. Of course, he has to justify all that extra money when national insurance is going up to fund the spending.

Furthermore, by the time you read this, chancellor Gordon Brown will have presented his latest Budget and the public pay purse is certain to come under the spotlight.

There were questions about the way accident and emergency waiting times were measured over one week at the end of March and whether the figures could be sustained once the heat was off, operations were not being cancelled and the locums had been laid off.We did not get much of response, although he did say that if the figures crept up again we - the media - would be quick to note it.

One problem facing Mr Milburn in all this spending discussion is the fact that that the GP contract has still not been signed and there has been no resolution to the consultant contract row which means, among other things, that future spending projections could be slightly skewed by their settlements.

And talking of doctors and stalled negotiations, I have just returned from a very pleasant three weeks in New Zealand, where there was little to do except eat fine food and drink even finer wines while glorying in the fact that hedonism is cheaper Down Under.

The news was totally dominated by the nation's loss of the America's Cup (yachting, to the uninitiated) to landlocked Switzerland. Even the war, which was still pending at that stage, was second item.

Yet at the same time, history was being made with New Zealand's first ever strike by doctors. I kept asking myself how this would be reported in the UK, and could only conclude that even if we were at war it would rate at least a minute's air time.

In what will seem very familiar here, the doctors from South Island's Timaru Hospital were protesting over their on-call roster, which would mean working every third night and sometimes every second.The doctors wanted registrars to be appointed to the specialties which needed them or, failing that, monetary compensation for the extra hours.

An impasse had been reached in which the doctors are asking for a repackaged offer - or enter into binding arbitration.

Meanwhile, in the UK, we are dealing with the delay on the GP contract ballot.The British Medical Association and the NHS Confederation are still investigating claims that practices would lose money and, in the words of the BMA, 'become destabilised under the new arrangements'.

A recent BMA survey showed that 60 per cent of consultants were prepared to take industrial action over the proposed piecemeal introduction of the new contract.

It would seem that dissatisfaction among doctors is international and that even access to cheaper Cloudy Bay wine is not enough to overcome opposition to meddling with oncall rosters.

Victoria Macdonald is social affairs correspondent for Channel 4 News.