Published: 14/07/2005, Volume II5, No. 115 Page 10
Watching MPs going through a runof-the-mill session of prime minister's question time just hours after the London bombs, I was torn between admiration for the banal normality of the spectacle (even a couple of jokes) and irritation.
Did they not know what had happened? Of course they knew, and they were making their own contribution as emergency workers and NHS staff - at St Thomas' just across Westminster Bridge among many other hospitals - grappled with their own more gruesome labours: triage of the wounded, the struggle to save life and provide comfort.
Patricia Hewitt was in Cabinet when the disruptive 'power surge' with which commuters were initially confronted turned into something more sinister. That session, chaired by John Prescott in Tony Blair's absence, turned into an emergency session, then a smaller meeting of Cobra which she, as health secretary, duly attended with the NHS's chief medical officer and chief executive.
Cobra? Not as glamorous as it sounds. It stands for Cabinet Office briefing room, as I recall, the location of the civil emergencies committee that was developed during the IRA bombing years.
What they do is to make sure the contingency plans made over recent years are working. They did. There was relatively little panic, and properly equipped teams were at the right places in a hurry.
'It all went incredibly smoothly, ' my Department of Health sources confirm. Better than that, the DoH's last 'table top' planning exercise had dealt with just such a scenario: a multi-site attack needing the services of many NHS hospitals. The strategic oversight provided by the strategic health authority structure also helped.
Better still, fears expressed in Whitehall that the appeal to people with no essential need to come into London not to do so might deter NHS staff from responding was not realised. They poured in at every level to help. 'Staff dedication and commitment was amazing, ' Ms Hewitt quickly assured.
Their flexibility was also a source of comfort to officialdom. Trolleys were pushed from nearby hospitals in Bloomsbury. Qualified staff came from the British Medical Association's head office, spattered with blood from victims of the number 30 bus, and victims were also tended at Unison's nearby office.
What also struck me about the roll-call of the dead, the injured and the lucky was how they reflected the extraordinarily polyglot character of both London and the NHS.
You may have read of Gladys Wundowa, a Ghanaian-born night cleaner at University College, a socially active Christian training to become a housing manager. She finished her shift at 8.50 a. m, walked into the mayhem on the Tube and - as I type - remains unfound. Typical in being untypical.
During the London Blitz of 194041, much invoked this weekend, Churchill knew that Britain was not really alone: there was the Empire.
What would the old boy have made of modern London where the now former Empire - Asian, African, American - is so extraordinarily evident, along with pretty much everyone else.
I suspect he would have adapted his rhetoric: strength in diversity, that sort of thing. It was part of a deliberate strategy that helped London win the Olympics 24 hours earlier. It has its down-sides, as staff know, but last week's savagery had as unifying an effect as the Blitz.
When emergency services are coping so well, it means the system is working - which does not leave politicians much to do without getting in the way.
Ms Hewitt spoke to key players, like South West London SHA chief executive Julie Dent, to whom the coordinating role fell, Unison's Dave Prentis and the Royal College of Nursing's Dr Beverley Malone.
With the physical emergency under control, health ministers are aware that staff may need emotional repair work.
A medical friend told me at the weekend of a surgeon who had worked all day on desperately wounded patients and failed to save a single one. They had to call his wife to come in and take him home.
Angus Calder, in his book The Myth of the Blitz, concluded that the myth of London's wartime heroism was fundamentally true. It did not mean that heroes do not also suffer. .
Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.