Ham&High letters: Online GPs, disposable masks, library staff and the Ponds

Swimmers in the Hampstead Heath mixed bathing pond as it reopens to the public following the easing

Swimmers in the Hampstead Heath mixed bathing pond as it reopens to the public following the easing of coronavirus lockdown. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA - Credit: PA

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Ham&High readers this week.

Online GP surgeries must be robust

David Winskill, Hornsey, full address supplied, writes:

Peter Rutherford makes some important points about the challenges and dangers that a move to telephone and online consultations with GPs could bring.

The service changes I wrote about are being developed by project teams and consultants in NHS London while it was Matt Hancock who surprised many (including GPs) by saying that “... from now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to.”

For many people the typical experience of accessing a doctor is frustrating and unacceptable: a three-week wait before an appointment, another hour hanging round in a waiting room for a 10-minute chat then trotting along to a pharmacist for a prescription which turns out to be out of stock.

The majority of consultations can be mediated online or over the ‘phone but, as Peter highlights, it is the richness of information that the GP picks up from other signals that must not be lost.

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All GP surgeries are mandated to have a Patient Participation Group (PPG). In the apparent absence of a formal NHS initiative, our local practices should be engaging with them in conversations about when face-to-face consultations are an imperative, the maximum intervals between patient visits to the surgery and identifying and ensuring that those with poor online access and skills, English as an additional language or mental health challenges do not become second class NHS service users.

Disposable masks damage planet

Melanie Rendell, Muswell Hill, full address supplied, writes:

Before this pandemic began, a few small but promising strides were being made in the war against plastic.

In May of 2019 the government pledged to restrict single use plastic items beginning with plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds by April 2020. In the same month, nearly all countries agreed to curtail sending their plastic waste to poorer nations to deal with, and to take responsibility for their own plastic disposal. Then Covid strikes and priorities change.

The restriction of single use plastic in the UK has now been pushed back to October with some food and drink suppliers pushing for a 2021 extension, and now single use plastic masks are adding daily to the 150 million tonnes of single use plastic the world is already producing each year, with no signs of this slowing down while the pandemic continues.

Along with masks we now have more single use plastic bags (the 5p tax was relaxed in the UK to help retailers) and more plastic packaging as increasingly people have turned to takeaways and online shopping during this time. Disposable plastic cups have also been mounting up since cafes and restaurants banned reusable ones, despite the current evidence that reusable cups are no less safe and may even be safer, given that detergent is one of the few things proven to kill the virus.

But there seems to be a reluctance now to go back on this rule. Maybe we could be a little bit forgiven for losing sight of longer-term environmental goals in all the madness and in our immediate focus of looking after our own lives and the lives of those around us. But only a little bit forgiven.

Because the truth is that we simply can’t prioritise our lives and our communities without prioritising the environment. It just won’t work. Maybe the Australian bushfires and wildfires that ravaged through the Amazon rainforest and which are currently still devastating California haven’t been enough to tell us that. Maybe hearing of melting ice caps felt too distant and also failed to drive the message home.

But what about Covid itself? There are a few things we know about this virus now, and one of them is that it is most likely a bat-borne virus, passed to us directly or through an intermediary animal such as a pangolin, presumably though not conclusively through a live animal market (the pangolin being an intermediary has also so far not been proven and the cruelty so far shown to the endangered pangolin could take up many book volumes). Either way this means that it was our problematic relationship with wildlife which got us into this mess in the first place.

So that brings me back to single use plastic masks, masks that are already finding their way into the ocean for sea animals to ingest or get entangled in while damaging marine seabeds. A recent WWF study has also revealed that humans may be eating the equivalent of a credit card of plastic every week, and that study was done pre-Covid and pre-masks. The science on the long term health effects is too much in its infancy to say exactly what those effects could be, but I think we could already say intuitively that ingesting a credit card of plastic a week can’t be a good thing! It’s very sad to see all our recent progress being pushed aside in these times and to see politicians and celebrities alike who were so recently speaking up on environmental issues, now promoting the use of masks without providing any instruction on the kind that the general public should buy. To give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps there is some confusion still about how much protection different masks can offer. But according to a review released by The Royal Society and The British Academy in June 2020, cloth masks when not too loose fitting are protective for the general public including to the wearer, with the best ones being made from high quality material such as high-grade cotton in multiple layers or interwoven with other fabrics.

A search online will quickly yield results for these kinds of masks. Good options can be found on wearethought.com, originally an Australia based company which came to the UK in 2002 and is committed to responsible sourcing, sustainability and change in that direction. There is also peacewiththewild.co.uk, a small family run business committed to providing eco friendly and sustainable options in a wide range of products.

If this pandemic can teach us anything and have any lasting positive impact, it’s the message that we aren’t invincible on this planet. Up to now we’ve been able to take the environment for granted. But maybe 2020 is the year to change what we can and can’t take for granted. Already the value of what it means to be able to hug our nearest and dearest has increased immeasurably. And maybe we could also let some of that new appreciation spill over into this incredible planet of ours and begin taking some small action by looking at what we are buying and how we can choose more wisely.

Boost library staff to help economy

Keith Martin, Friern Park, North Finchley, writes:

I have written the following to Oliver Dowden, the culture minister -

You have the good fortune to perform the most rewarding job in the House of Commons, that of culture minister.

Obviously the perks involved – meeting and discussing life with the liveliest creative brains in the industry; artists, playwrights, poets and international film stars; attending red-carpet first nights, film festivals and classical and pop concerts, are the visible pleasures of the job.

However, it is your actions which should bring you the highest satisfaction. At a time when unemployment is a serious national problem, it is your happy statutory duty to restore the jobs and livelihoods to 10,000 library staff who in the last 10 years have been made redundant by local authorities who, in breach of their own statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service, have made cuts in the service including these 10,000 redundancies. Restoration of these jobs will be your greatest legacy to the country’s arts and culture, and will make you friends from every section of the arts and media.

Fair price to pay for Heath swim

Alexander Brierley, Savernake Road, Hampstead, writes:

I am sure loyal readers of the Ham&High look forward to Robert Sutherland Smith’s occasional letters. All good knock-about stuff. But there’s a problem - over the years as Robert pursues his favourite hobby-horses, he has now very little new to say.

His letter of letter of August 13 goes over familiar ground. His belief that the Corporation of London has certain dark, gothic, closeted tendencies conjures up a Bram Stoker novel, but will mystify those of us that now watch these arcane machinations broadcast live over You Tube. That somehow these operations evade any form of democracy simply does not fit the facts. The Hampstead Heath Consultative Committee is established under secondary legislation, with a statutory instrument setting out its membership - a wide range of local civic groups and organisations.

Yes, the City Corporation is a mighty strange organisation, but in general tries to do good. It has substantial wealth, but held in trust for both current generations and those that are to come. Supporting London’s open spaces at no cost to the taxpayer, and without the imposition of a local tithe – as at Wimbledon Common or for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Robert, we both pay the precept for the Lee Valley Park, yet it appears you feel you have an inalienable right to swim free of charge in the bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath, while at the same time you are happy to stump up for the Lee Valley Park.

The clue is in the name - ‘bathing ponds’. In the 19th century, bathing was, for most people, an immersion in water. Only after Captain’s Webb’s channel swim in 1875, did swimming become popular. Over 150 years of swimming on the Heath is mentioned in the letter. Actually, swimming started in what is now the Mixed Pond in 1884, with the Metropolitan Board of Works providing a changing hut in 1889. At that time, the pond was reserved for women on Thursdays. The Men’s Pond opened in 1893 and the Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond as recently as 1926, the Kenwood estate having been acquired in 1923.

Swimming on the Heath is supported to the tune of around £1,000,000 per year, out of a total Heath budget of around £6,000,000 a year, excluding capital works. This money might be spend on alternative projects - supporting the work of the City Bridge Trust, alleviating the terrible plight of the Yemeni people or perhaps even on other tasks at the Heath. The City Bridge Trust is the largest charitable giver in London, and yes, the City of London is familiar with food banks. A charge of £4 to swim - £2.40 for concessions (including the over 60s) – is a modest price to pay for safe lifeguarded swimming in such beautiful surroundings - about the same as the cost of a cup of coffee.

An action brought by John Gurney Hoare, on behalf of copyholders, to prevent Thomas Maryon Wilson enclosing land for which he was tenant-for-life under the terms of his father’s will, was heard in Chancery on June 24, 1868. John Gurney Hoare did not save the Heath from commercialisation, as the judge Lord Romilly refused to give a ruling on the issues of the case. The death of Sir Thomas the following year, led to the sale in 1871 by his brother and heir of the land in question (220 acres) to the Metropolitan Board of Works.

It was on the East Park Estate, not on the 220 acres, that villas were planned by Thomas Maryon Wilson. This estate, plus other parcels of land - a total of an additional 261 acres - were subsequently acquired in 1889.

In talking about democratic organisations, the letter makes mention of the swimming associations. Might readers be told the number of paid-up members of the United Swimmers’ Association? As a democratically accountable organisation, can the Association publish the results of elections for the chairman and other officers, the diversity of its membership and what it does to encourage people with protected characteristics to join?

I am sure readers of the Ham&High will continue to enjoy your letters. I would simply ask that you check your facts first.