Published: 20/12/2001, Volume III, No.5786 Page 20

It is almost Christmas, when young hospital patients suffer as at no other time.

I will be sitting in the pub in front of a roaring log-fire happily recollecting Christmases past, loudly and cheerfully reminding everyone within earshot that the Black Death arrived in England on Christmas day in 1348 and that the 'doctor's friend', graverobber and murderer William Burke, was sentenced to hang on Christmas morning in 1828.

Others will have less cause to celebrate: time to extend our sympathy for children past and present who have had to endure the Christmas morning visit to their hospital bedsides of television uncles - pseudorelatives like Uncle Rolf and Uncle Noel and, for those old enough to remember black-and white television, Uncle Eamon Andrews on loan from the earliest series of Crackerjack.

Perhaps this annual tug at our heartstrings was going on even before television, broadcast on the wireless by some now longforgotten uncle of the airwaves.

Why do those in authority let television crews onto their premises? We can guess why the television people want to get in: It is cheap and entertaining, and it fills the blanks in the schedules.

That the public like hospital dramas has been amply evidenced all the way from Emergency Ward 10 to Casualty.

But popularity is not the networks' only consideration - cost is the major factor.

Television producers have budgets, and if you do not need expensive sets and even costlier actors, the temptation to use real hospitals packed with real people willing to perform for nothing must be irresistible.

It is not difficult to figure out why hospital managers let television crews over the threshold - ego. Too many of us suffer from undiagnosed Warhol's syndrome: millions long for their 15 minutes of fame.

What better way to achieve it than by having men and women clutching video cameras and microphones wandering round the premises for days at a time, desperate to capture something of even the smallest interest to fill their unforgiving minutes?

Many patients get a buzz from being filmed, too, and being able to tell their nearest and dearest to set the video to record their moment of glory. But aside from the euphoria of being a 'star for a night', what about the downside?

The NHS's purpose is to relieve people's ills as efficiently as possible, not massage egos of staff or patients. So do camera crews in a hospital do anything to help the NHS achieve its ultimate objectives? Indeed, might the sound of classic Tinsel Town phrases like 'lights, camera, action' and 'I am sorry, can we shoot that again?' echoing through the wards actually be detrimental to patients? Is it possible that, albeit indirectly, even deaths might be attributed to inviting camera crews onto the premises?

A surgeon spares a few minutes to perfect the lines he is going to deliver to the camera instead of working out where to make the right incision in a patient; a nurse spends an extra minute in front of the mirror fixing her make-up instead of keeping an eye on an incubator, while a chief executive goes to the hairdresser instead of paying proper attention to the financial forecast, an omission which may have consequences a year down the line.

While it is unlikely anyone can point a finger at any single untoward incident directly caused by the presence of television crews, it is self-evident that time, and hence NHS resources, are being consumed as an unavoidable consequence of that presence - resources which would otherwise have been directed towards patient care. In a service where action deferred by even a minute can lead to death, somewhere among the thousands of minutes lost to the cameras will hide not only patients who have been inconvenienced but some who have given up their lives on the altar of the one-eyed god.

Is there a way to have our cake and eat it? Can we have the cameras in and not consume valuable resources? Yes we can: we could charge the television companies such huge sums for access that the undoubted damage they do is fully redressed.

Whether the TV production teams would be willing to pay tens of thousands of pounds to rove around a hospital is doubtful when one of their primary motivations is cheapness.

But were I lying ill in a hospital, the last thing I would want would be some irritating television personality at my bedside asking me how I was - no matter how much they were paying for the privilege.

Goodwill, not good riddance, may be the season's slogan, but we can make an exception.Christmas is a time for giving: so why do not we start the new year by resolving to give viewers, TV crews, TV uncles and especially those poor kids who are forced to spend the day in hospital, a well-earned rest next Christmas morning.